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How much influence do Russian oligarchs really have on Putin?


The sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine have targeted its economy and its oligarchs, extremely wealthy individuals with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But not all oligarchs are created equal. Paddy Hirsch and Adrian Ma from NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator explain who these people are and what that means for the effectiveness of sanctions.

PADDY HIRSCH, BYLINE: It's hard to say how many oligarchs there are in Russia. Some of them live large, right? They travel widely, and they're often seen in the media. Others are a lot more discreet. Stanislav Markus is an associate professor of international business at the University of South Carolina and a specialist on Russian oligarchs.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: Markus says these oligarchs fall into three loose categories. First, there are the original, the OG oligarchs. They became wealthy when the Soviet Union fell apart in the 1990s.

STANISLAV MARKUS: The Soviet Union was, of course, a state-dominated, planned economy. And then after the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia tried to build a market economy, they had to privatize all those state assets. They had to give them to private owners.

HIRSCH: They didn't quite give them these assets. The oligarchs had to buy them. But they bought them very cheap, and they became super-rich.

MA: After coming to power in 2000, Vladimir Putin set about creating a new generation of oligarchs, some of whom were pretty close friends of his from St. Petersburg.

MARKUS: He basically gave super-lucrative state contracts to his buddies, so to say. And they grew ultra-wealthy in exchange for kickbacks.

MA: Part of the deal with Putin is that they can get as rich as they want, but they've got to stay out of politics. And so most of them aren't in Putin's inner circle. They don't have his ear. But because they've been so rich for so long, many of these two categories of oligarchs are highly visible, and so they're the ones that have been sanctioned. Markus says that probably won't achieve a whole lot.

MARKUS: He is, however, incentivized to listen to the military elites.

MA: The military elites, which include the most recent generation of oligarchs, the so-called silovarchs.

MARKUS: Siloviki is the reference to the Russian military and quasi-military elites. So we call them siloviki, then oligarchs. You combine these two words, you get silovarchs.

MA: These are the men Putin will increasingly rely on in the coming weeks to keep the Russian people in line. And assuming the war in Ukraine grinds on and sanctions continue to pummel the Russian economy, Markus says these silovarchs should be a priority target.

MARKUS: If Putin loses coercion, you know, he loses power. So we could see from this - you know, specifically from the group of silovarchs, we could see pressure. We could even see internal attempts at a coup.

HIRSCH: But Markus says identifying and targeting these men is not easy.

MARKUS: Ownership is highly concealed. It's layered in different off-shores, and that will require much more investigative work.

MA: To really be effective, these sanctions have to be a lot more targeted and a lot more specific than this wide net that the U.S. and its allies have cast. They need to provide silovarchs with real incentives to either turn on their boss or convince him to back down.

HIRSCH: If the U.S. and its allies can keep the pressure on the economy, sanctions on individuals could be a powerful tool as long as they're directed at those oligarchs with a triple threat - money to lose, power to wield and access to Putin's ear.

MA: Adrian Ma.

HIRSCH: Paddy Hirsch, NPR News.


Adrian Ma
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.