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‘Russian oligarchs could destabilize Putin’s rule domestically,’ expert says

Q&A with political scientist on how sanctions against oligarchs can shape the war

The U.S. has imposed an unprecedented level of economic sanctions on Russia in response to Putin’s war on Ukraine. Coordinated sanctions with allies against Russian elites have cut powerful families and individuals off from financial systems, frozen their assets and blocked access to their property.

Professor Jeffrey Winters, an expert on oligarchs and elites, is available to speak to media about the politics of wealth, and how these targeted sanctions could shape the outcome of the war.

Winters is director of the Equality Development and Globalization Studies program (EDGS) at the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs and a professor of political science in Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern.  He is the author of the award-winning book “Oligarchy” published by Cambridge University Press in 2011. He can be reached at

He explains the strategy behind the sanctions and the origin of the Russian oligarchy’s wealth in the Q&A below: 

Who are the Russian oligarchs?

“To be an oligarch describes a unique position of political power based on wealth. In Russia, oligarchs emerged rapidly after the Soviet Union collapsed and well-placed figures were able to grab state assets in finance, oil and gas, and mining, among others. Since then, Russia has had to contend with these powerful actors. Putin, now the richest of all Russian oligarchs, has sought to tame them by jailing some, driving others into exile, but also recruiting many into his inner circle of power. He enriches them, and they enrich him.

“But the relationship is unstable. Putin needs the support of his oligarchs, but he can also seize their wealth in an instant if they fall out of favor. Engaging in what I call ‘wealth defense,’ all oligarchs, including American oligarchs, make use of the world’s geography to place assets offshore, often in secrecy jurisdictions — the U.S. being one of the most important secrecy havens in the world, ironically.”

How will the sanctions affect Putin and the war?

“Russians have concentrated their offshore holdings (equal in value to Russia’s entire GDP) in London, Cyprus and even the U.S., in places like Miami and New York where they invested in property through limited liability companies (LLCs) whose ultimate ownership is opaque.

“Ordinarily, placing these assets all over the world works to an oligarch’s advantage. In the case of Russia, their main concern was managing their relationship with Putin but also not making it easy for him to grab everything. But in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, having assets all over the world is suddenly a weakness for Russia’s oligarchs because they can be frozen by countries seeking to punish Russia and especially those closest to Putin himself.

“The strategy is to give the oligarchs a lot of pain so that they will apply pressure on Putin to back off. If united and sufficiently agitated, Russian oligarchs could destabilize Putin’s rule domestically. This is the first time sanctions on a country have gone after that country’s oligarchs on such a scale and so personally. Even offshore secrecy jurisdictions, which always pledge never to reveal who owns the trillions in assets they hide to avoid detection and taxation, have started cooperating.”

What and where are oligarchs?

“We are hearing a lot about Russian oligarchs, but these powerful figures are not new. The terms ‘oligarch’ and ‘oligarchy’ date back to ancient Athens and Rome. Oligarchs are different from the rest of us because their tremendous wealth gives them tremendous political power — and not just in Russia, but in all countries where massive wealth is concentrated in very few hands. The United States has thousands of oligarchs as well who use their wealth power to shape — many would say distort — our politics.

“These actions of freezing assets all over the world and penetrating the secrecy of the offshore world is not only troubling for Russian oligarchs. These moves signal to U.S. and Western oligarchs as well that the system is not as secure for them to hide wealth as it once was. Repeatedly in history, actions targeting one powerful group, in this case Russians oligarchs, can have major ripple effects for the group as a whole.”