Inside the business of Russia's wealthiest oligarchs
Updated: Apr 9
Among the multitude of international sanctions that hit Russia following its invasion of Ukrainian territory, one of the most controversial moves has arguably been the targeting of the private assets of key Russian personalities.
A number of task forces have been launched around the world – namely “KleptoCapture” by the US Department of Justice, “Freeze and Seize” by the European Commission, “REPO” by the G7 countries and Australia – with the intent of identifying oligarchs who have roles in supporting Russian actions in Ukraine and not only freezing their assets, but also confiscating them. These task forces are coordinating on an international level to ensure efficiency in the implementation of such sanctions, and, in the words of the European Commissioner for Financial Services, Financial Stability and Capital Markets Union, Mairead McGuinness, “the focus […] is to stop money flowing to the Russian war machine”.
In this article, we will have a dive into the history and business of the five richest Russian oligarchs.
Vladimir Potanin ($29.4B net worth, $-1.45B change YTD) has been First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin and was a key figure in designing the infamous loans-for-shares mechanism of privatization of Russian State-owned companies brought out during the 1990s. In 1990 he founded his own investment company, Interros, and thanks to its governmental connections he was able to greatly benefit from the privatization program that he himself helped create. Today, Interros is one of the oldest and largest private investment companies in Russia, holding a portfolio which includes companies in metals & mining, real estate development, sports and tourism, pharmaceuticals, and private equity. Through Interros, Potanin is the owner and CEO of Norilsk Nickel, Russia’s leading metals and mining company and the world’s largest producer of refined nickel and palladium, as well as the 4th largest producer of platinum and rhodium, and 11th largest miner of copper. His 88-metre megayacht is currently cruising off the Maldives to avoid seizing.
Leonid Mikhelson ($26.4B net worth, $-6.05B change YTD) started as an engineer and climbed up to the role of general director at then-called Kuibishevtruboprovodstroy. This company was one of the first to undergo privatization after the fall of the USSR, selling its shares and getting renamed NOVA. Mikhelson retained his role of director until 1994, when he founded holding company Novafininvest, focused on oil and gas assets development. Through Novafininvest, Mikhelson acquired exploration and production licenses in multiple Russian regions and invested in the development of fields and surface facilities. The main assets of the holding company were consolidated into NOVATEK in 2004 and from then on, the company engaged in an aggressive expansion strategy which brought to a rapid increase in production volumes. Today, NOVATEK is the second largest natural gas producer in Russia behind state-controlled Gazprom, which itself holds a stake of about 10% in NOVATEK. The company had already been one of the main targets of US sanctions in 2014, at the time of the first aggressions in Ukraine, but it weathered the storm unscathed.
Alexey Mordashov ($23.4B net worth, $-5.41B change YTD) is the main shareholder and chairman of Severstal, Russia’s largest steel and mining company. These industries have been key investments throughout all his entrepreneurial career which started by acquiring shares of Cherepovetskiy Metallurgical Plant through two investment funds he set up during the privatizations. By an intense M&A activity, he built the steel and mining conglomerate Severstal is today. In 2003 became co-owner of Rossiya Bank and in the following ten years he invested in other foreign steel and mining companies, both in US and India. Pursuing a logic of diversification, he expanded his portfolio to travel in leisure in Eastern Europe, Russia, China, and India. His education includes a bachelor’s in Engineering and Economics from the Leningrad Institute, and MBA achieved in England. He is currently affected by sanctions given the European Union blacklisted Mordashov and has frozen all his assets, while the Italian police seized one of his yachts.
Vladimir Lisin ($22.6B net worth, $-5.38B change YTD) is the main shareholder and chairman of Novolipetsk, one of the largest steel companies in Russia. Steel is still one of his main business interests, with assets in transportation and logistics, energy, and utilities companies, controlled by Fletcher Group Holdings. He started his career as mechanic in a Soviet coalmine and he rose through the ranks up to deputy chief engineer also thanks to his studies at the Siberian Metallurgic Institute. The key event has been joining a group of traders who won control of the Russia’s steel and aluminum industry. In 2000, 7 years after he joined, the partners split and he received a 13% stake. In the following years, he managed to increase it to a majority stake. He doesn’t show up in the European Union blacklist and he can still travel thanks to his diplomatic passport of San Marino, of which he is honorary consul.
Alisher Burkhanovich Usmanov ($19.8B net worth, $-1.46B change YTD) is a diversified investor with stakes in metals and mining industries, as well as telecommunications, tech, and media. The main owned interests are in USM holdings (100% of voting rights), MegaFon (second largest mobile phone operator in Russia), and Udokan Copper, company which develops one of the largest copper deposit in the world. Usmanov made his fortune after the collapse of the Soviet Union through metal and mining operations, other than subsequent investments. He obtained a degree in international law from the Moscow institute of international relations. During his life, he was charged with criminal convictions and imprisoned for 6 years. To be noted, this sentence was later revised and revoked, on the basis of no crime ever committed. Subsequent to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European Union has blacklisted him and has frozen all his assets. The United States moved in the same direction with some exceptions for his companies.