Guest list scrutiny as Putin meeting with billionaires
At his second meeting with major business leaders since the start of the war, Putin last week praised those who “stayed here and didn’t leave.” Behind closed doors, there were discussions of a 300 billion ruble “voluntary contribution” that most businessmen still hope to see presented as a tax so they can escape allegations of sponsoring the war. But the big talking point was who turned up to meet the president at a time when open association with the regime risks Western sanctions. Notable attendees included Alfa Group co-owner German Khan, whose appeal to get sanctions lifted was recently backed by opposition figures, and Andrei Melnichenko, who is currently challenging EU sanctions in court.
- Putin took part in an annual Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) gathering Thursday. Putin spoke at the plenary session, then held a behind closed doors meeting. This was the second time Putin has met with business leaders since war broke out (the first was on the day the invasion began — Feb. 24, 2022).
- The real talking point was who was there. Since the start of the war, any meeting with Putin has been highly toxic from a sanctions point of view: nobody who attended the Feb. 24 gathering has escaped sanctions. For some billionaires under sanctions, that could mean there is nothing more to fear. However, many businessmen are counting on being removed from the sanctions list and several have already launched legal challenges.
- As a result, only six of the top 20 figures from the Forbes 2022 Russian list were in attendance — Vladimir Potanin, Leonid Mikhelson, Alexei Mordashov, Andrei Melnichenko, German Khan and Viktor Rashikov.
- The richest Russian, steelmaker Vladimir Lisin (who has yet to appear on any sanctions list), AFK Sistema over Vladimir Yevtushenko (currently sanctioned only by the U.K.) and billionaire Alisher Usmanov (sanctioned by dozens of countries) were all absent. Businessmen who, as it transpired, have submitted letters of resignation from the RSPP — LUKoil’s Vagit Alekperov and Leonid Fedun, Crocus City chief Araz Agalarov and former head of Sibur Dmitry Konov — were also not there. “Formally, a resignation request can only be accepted by a vote at the congress, but there hasn’t been one for a long time. So these requests have been piling up,” a source close to one of the resigning businessmen told The Bell.
- Khan, one of four major co-owners of Alfa Group, was the most widely discussed attendee. His presence was a surprise as it had previously been assumed he was abandoning business in Russia along with his partners Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and Alexei Kuzmichev. A year ago Khan sold his share in Alfa Bank to junior partner Andrei Kosogov. Like Fridman, Aven and Kuzmichev, Khan was mentioned in a letter signed by opposition leaders calling for sanctions on the Alfa owners to be lifted.
- Melnichenko’s attendance was another surprise. After he was sanctioned in March, he transferred his companies to his wife, then, in May, he was one of the first to contest EU sanctions in court. “One of the reasons Melnichenko was on the European sanctions list was his involvement in the Feb. 24 meeting with Putin. It seems to us that the businessman had a chance of success in his legal challenge against sanctions, but now he has shown a systemic element to his relationship with the Russian state,” a legal specialist Telegram channel wrote in bewilderment last week. Media outlet Agentsvo pointed out that 40 Russian businessmen are contesting sanctions through the courts and none of them — apart from Melnichenko — attended the RSPP event.
- Those present heard nothing revolutionary from Putin. As in all his recent statements to businessmen, he insisted the West was no safe haven (“I often heard how things were more stable there. And now?”) and praised those who remained in Russia (“They proved smarter, more productive and more effective than those who ran away to advise our enemies.”) In reply, RSPP head Alexander Shokhin told Putin about the success of Innopraktika, the company led by the president’s daughter Katerina Tikhonova.
- So far, we have had no significant leaks from the closed part of Putin’s meeting. A source familiar with the discussion told The Bell that there was nothing much of note. Shokin merely said that they discussed different ways for business to make a financial contribution. However, he said the government is opposed to making this a new tax because it would contradict “the logic of a moratorium on tax increases.”
Why the world should care
This event highlighted a wartime status quo: the Kremlin will not be offended nervous businessmen who pass up invitations to meet the president. However, Putin is clearly considering how to respond to businessmen who have left Russia. A month ago, speaking to the upper house of parliament, he promised “not to interfere” with anyone’s right “to live out their lives in an impounded mansion with a blocked bank account.” Now, though, his rhetoric is beginning to target people “who left, and advise our enemies.”