Correction: An earlier version of this article contained an inaccurate statement about the Russian bank VTB. It has been removed.
Several members of Congress recently asked the U.S. intelligence community to figure out the extent of Putin’s personal wealth. That’s a question not easily answered — the Russian president is a former intelligence officer himself, after all. He knows how to hide what he does not want to be found.
The first strong evidence of Putin’s fortune was a pamphlet called “Putin and Gazprom,” published in 2008 by former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated in 2015, and former deputy minister of energy Vladimir Milov. The two authors alleged that Putin’s four closest businessmen friends from St. Petersburg — Yuri Kovalchuk, Gennady Timchenko, and the brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg — had extracted no less than $60 billion from Gazprom, Russia’s natural-gas monopoly, from 2004 to 2007. They reportedly did so through no-bid public procurement, asset stripping and stock manipulation. The U.S. government sanctioned all four in March 2014, arousing loud protests from the Kremlin.
The market value of Gazprom, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange, peaked at $369 billion in May 2008. Now that investors have figured out that Gazprom is working for its contractors and asset-strippers rather than its shareholders, the company currently trades at $60 billion. That means Gazprom insiders have reduced its value by some $310 billion, which must qualify as either a case of epic bad management or one of the biggest heists of all time. Chief executive Alexei Miller, a former assistant to Putin, has held the job since May 2001, indicating that Putin is satisfied with his performance.
The next most notable claim about Putin’s wealth came from Sergei Kolesnikov, a junior partner of oligarch Nikolai Shamalov. Kolesnikov fled Russia because he feared for his life. He offered a long and detailed interview to the prominent Russian journalist Yevgeniya Albats in 2012. Kolesnikov, who was involved in this project, revealed that Putin was building a grand palace near the Black Sea resort of Sochi with state funds. Kolesnikov suggested that typically half of any crony business went to Putin and half to his chief partner, while junior partners received a few percent.
The irony is that Putin has undermined all property rights in Russia. Therefore, Putin and his cronies need to transfer their wealth to offshore havens. Otherwise, if they lose power in Russia, they will be instantly expropriated.
The Panama Papers, which Putin condemned in the starkest terms, offered further insights. According to the documents, one of Putin’s childhood friends, the cellist Sergei Roldugin, turned out to be a multi-billionaire, seemingly without knowing it. The biggest gift identified in the Panama Papers was $259 million that Roldugin received from the private Russian businessman Suleiman Kerimov, who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in April 2018.
If the allegations are true, the picture is clear: Putin and his closest friends are looting the state and its assets, primarily Gazprom, on an extraordinary scale. My guesstimate is that Putin’s cronies have moved $15 billion to $25 billion a year out of the country since 2006. Over 13 years that would total $195 billion to $325 billion. Half of that amount would belong to Putin.
And it shows. The booklet “The Life of a Galley Slave,” authored in 2012 by Nemtsov and the activist Leonid Martynyuk, concluded that Putin had at his disposal 20 palaces, four yachts, 58 aircraft and a collection of watches worth about $700,000. Like so many other critics of the regime, Martynyuk has been forced to flee Russia.
But why does Putin need all this money? Because money is power in Russia. Only the richest can rule, so Putin needs to be the richest.
In all probability, Putin holds most of his wealth in Western countries with rule of law and deep financial markets and that allow anonymously owned companies. Yet this also makes him vulnerable. If the United States prohibited anonymous ownership and started demanding information about all ultimate beneficiary owners, it could make life very difficult for the Russian president.