Only a handful of Russian oligarchs have spoken out against the invasion of Ukraine since February 2022. Has their public condemnation of the war reached the Russian public, and the Kremlin?
He's one of the many oligarchs who was hit by EU sanctions in June 2022.
“I am horrified about the fate of people in Ukraine – many of them my personal friends and relatives – whose houses are being bombed every day,” Volozh added in a statement published on Thursday.
It was a firm, headline-grabbing statement that unequivocally condemned Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, and that put Volozh on the rather short list of Russian oligarchs who have spoken out against the invasion since February 2022.
Volozh, who co-founded Yandez in 1997 and moved to Israel in 2014, resigned as chief executive of the company and left its board last year after the EU included Yandex in a list of sanctioned Russian businesses.
At the time, the EU wrote that the search engine was “responsible for promoting state media and narratives in its search results, and de-ranking and removing content critical of the Kremlin, such as content related to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.”
It also accused Volozh of “materially or financially” supporting the invasion. He called the decision “misguided.”
Are Russian oligarchs crumbling to Western pressure?
Volozh’s recent public condemnation of the war could appear as an example of the fact that the EU-imposed sanctions worked as intended, breaking down Volozh’s alleged loyalty to Putin.
But that’s hardly the case, according to Emily Ferris, Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Security at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British security and defense think tank.
“It’s very easy to speak out against the regime when you’re not in the country and when most of your assets are no longer in the country,” Ferris told Euronews.
“Most of the oligarchs, frankly, have not spoken up against the war,” she added. “And that is because most of them are still in Russia, and still have their assets there. I’ve not seen so many oligarchs moving their assets out of Russia - and that’s partly because it’s actually very hard to do so.”
Among the few other prominent Russian oligarchs who have publicly condemned the war is Oleg Tinkov, the founder of Tinkoff Bank - one of Russia’s biggest lenders - who renounced his Russian citizenship last year to condemn “Putin’s fascism.”
Before him, Israeli-Russian investor Yuri Milner - who had left Russia for the US in 2014 - had done the same.
What all these oligarchs have in common is that they are outside of Russia.
“If you’re in Russia, it’s very hard to speak against the war as you may end up facing prosecution,” David Lewis, Professor of Global Politics at the University of Exeter, UK, told Euronews.
“Those who want to retain business ties with Russia are largely staying silent and only those who are outside the country and have largely cut their business ties with Russia feel able and willing to speak out. And even among those, they are not that many people.”
Lewis added that the idea that sanctions will turn the oligarchs against Putin was always “rather naive.”
“Politics and business are so closely intertwined in Russia that it’s almost impossible to retain your business if you come out in opposition to the government’s policies,” he said.
Members of the Russian elite within the country who have been eager to distance themselves from the Kremlin’s position on Ukraine have had a muted reaction to the war, opting for avoiding publicly supporting the invasion rather than speaking out against it, Ferris said.
This is part of the reason why, in Russia, Volozh’s harsh condemnation of the war hardly caused a stir.
“I think it had very little practical impact,” Ferris said. “People in Russia don’t see the oligarchs and those local businesspeople as a kind of moral compass for the nation.”
Oligarchs’ statements condemning the war also receive very little coverage in Russian media, “if they’re covered at all,” Ferris said.
“They may have a marginal effect on others from the same demographic - Russian business elites -, simply by nornalizing the verbalization of certain rhetoric and discontent,” Anastassia Fedyk, an Assistant Professor of finance at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, told Euronews.
“They are unlikely to have an effect on other layers of Russian society: the modal Russian will neither value nor relate to a dethroned businessman exiled to Israel.”
What’s going to take for the oligarchs to turn against Putin - and would this make any difference?
“These sort of individual cases are not really enough to change the terms of the debate or to shift that discourse very soon,” Lewis said.
“Oligarchs have very little influence on decision making, particularly on decisions about the war itself. They are much more dependent on Putin than he is on them,” he added. “They are quite a weak group in Russian politics, and they’ve been for some time.”
Ferris agrees that the few acts of rebellion from Russian oligarchs abroad cannot even scratch Putin’s image at home.
“His hold on power is not really dictated by these minor oligarchs, he’s dictated by military leaders, the armed forces, people who are close to him - and there hasn’t been any kind of breach in this group in their consensus of the war,” Ferris said.
If the oligarchs speaking against the war were the ones with a significant presence in the country, leading companies employing hundreds and thousands of people who could lose their jobs because of their insubordination, then that would make a difference to Putin and Russian society. But that’s unlikely to happen.
“Everybody who earns a significant amount of money in that country owns much of it to Putin, because he has created the conditions to allow them to become that powerful,” Ferris said. “It would be incredibly foolish to go against him.”
But Fedyk said that the words of condemnation from exiled Russian oligarchs are “definitely still a good thing.”
“These statements don't have much impact and are just symptoms - but they are symptoms of things not going well in Russia,” she said.
“They highlight the increasingly tight authoritarianism and isolationism of the Russian government, how it's an increasingly small group of people who still benefit from the regime's actions. These things do not offer good prospects for Russia's long-term economic development, innovation, and even political stability.”