The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is Vladimir Putin hiding a $200 billion fortune? (And if so, does it matter?)

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to the media Tuesday during a visit to parliament in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

In much of the West, the public perception of Vladimir Putin is that of a Bond villain. With his tailor-made suits, thick accent and KGB past, he seems right out of the Pierce Brosnan era.

Of course, like all the best Bond villains, Putin needs a mysterious fortune for funding his misdeeds and building elaborate lairs. And so, you find the West fascinated by murky tales of Putin's opulent wealth.

The latest estimate of Putin's absurd wealth comes from Bill Browder, a former fund manager in Russia who is now one of the Russian president's fiercest critics on the world stage. Browder recently published a book that detailed the tragic story of how a financial crime in Putin's Russia resulted in the imprisonment and death of Browder's firm's tax lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. Browder was on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" to talk about the book last weekend when he threw out an incredible estimate of Putin's net worth.

“I believe that [Putin is worth] $200 billion," Browder said. "After 14 years in power of Russia, and the amount of money that the country has made, and the amount of money that hasn't been spent on schools and roads and hospitals and so on, all that money is in property, bank, Swiss bank accounts, shares, hedge funds, managed for Putin and his cronies.”

Indeed, $200 billion is a lot of money. It's more than twice the current fortune of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. If Browder is correct, that would make Putin the richest person in the world, with no real rivals – in fact, it might make him one of the richest people in the history of the world.

Could this possibly be true? Putin's own estimates of his wealth are far lower: His officially declared income for 2013 was 3.6 million rubles, approximately $101,000 at the time. His assets (most notably some cars and apartments) were hardly those of a multibillionaire.

Many (understandably) don't buy Putin's own version of his accounts, and reports suggesting that Putin holds a vast wealth go back many years. In 2007, he was estimated to have a fortune of $40 billion, making him the "richest man in Europe." That number then jumped to $70 billion in 2012, pushing him into the global top spot.

As Leonid Bershidsky wrote for Bloomberg View in 2013, most of these numbers can be traced back to one man:  Stanislav Belkovsky, a Russian political analyst, who first claimed in 2007 that Putin "controlled" 37 percent of oil company Surgutneftegaz and 4.5 percent of natural gas company Gazprom. If Belkovsky is right, that would certainly make Putin very wealthy. But where's the proof? Estimates of Putin's wealth lack even the smallest thread of evidence.

Perhaps that's for the best. In the highly personalized political world that Putin has created in Russia, his personal wealth is irrelevant. Consider a 2012 report made by a group of Russian dissidents and sarcastically titled "The Life of a Galley Slave" that took a look at the luxuries Putin's office afforded him. Among the many perks were a lavish estate called Constantine Palace that had recently been renovated at a cost of millions of dollars and 43 aircraft worth an estimated total of $1 billion.

Putin might not technically own these 43 aircraft, but, as the sole political power in Russia, he can act like they're his. He might not own Constantine Palace, either; but it's his, too. Given the enormous political power he has amassed, you can extend this logic further and further: Russia's currency reserves are his; Russia's military is his; even the asphalt that paves Russia's roads is his. Money may give Bill Gates power, but Putin already has the power: He doesn't need the money.

Putin isn't alone in this situation. Forbes, famous for its listings of the world's billionaires, makes a point of not including rulers and dictators. But with Russia, it's an important strategic point to remember.

Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution recently explained to WorldViews that one of the reasons sanctions against Russia weren't working was because they were designed to financially target Putin's close associates. "There’s an element there of thinking you can hit the guys around Putin as if it's like a real oligarchy," Gaddy said. "These oligarchs, the richest people in the world, their only protection in that society [is Putin]… This is like a Mafia operation. He makes sure that the key people around him are vulnerable."

Framing Putin in terms of wealth misses the point: He has more power than money can buy. Thankfully, power can be frittered away, too. Consider the fate of another Bond villain-like world leader who was suspected of having a secret $200 billion fortune.