With world leaders looking to heap more financial punishment on Russian President Vladimir Putin for his violent invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. and E.U. are set to freeze the assets of Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov—both of whom are believed to have amassed extreme wealth.
Putin is reportedly one of the richest people in the world, but his exact net worth is nearly impossible to tally. And freezing his assets won’t be easy, as they are likely distributed across a secret web of shell companies, real estate and other people’s accounts. Bill Browder, a U.S. investor who made a fortune in Russia before becoming a prominent Kremlin critic, told the U.S. Senate in 2017 that Putin had accumulated $200 billion in assets.
Still, the complexity of his holdings makes it difficult for world leaders to properly target their sanctions. E.U. foreign policy officials are not backing down, however. “I can assure you that if you got major assets and all of a sudden you can’t get hold of them, it will cost you,” E.U. foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said in a press conference on Friday. Even so, there is “a whole lot of work that needs to be done” to track down their E.U.-based assets, since Putin and Lavrov’s financial holdings are likely in other names, Borrell noted.
Estimates of Putin’s wealth have varied wildly over the years. In 2012, Stanislav Belkovsky, a former mid-level Kremlin adviser, claimed Putin had a fortune worth at least $70 billion—a figure that would put him in the top 20 of Forbes’ ranking of billionaires today. Belkovsky’s calculus was based on Putin’s alleged stakes in several Russian companies, primarily in the oil sector. Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist and author, estimated this year that Putin has somewhere between $100 billion and $130 billion in assets—a calculation based on the wealth of Putin’s oligarch confidants, which could be between $500 million and $2 billion each.
Official disclosures from the Kremlin list Putin’s annual income around $140,000, and show that he owns a 800-square-foot apartment in St. Petersburg along with two Soviet-era cars, an off-road truck and car trailer. But these assets hardly account for the wealth members of his inner circle hold on his behalf, experts say. The Panama Papers and Pandora Papers—leaked documents that contain information about wealthy individuals hiding money through a network of offshore bank accounts and companies—suggest that Russians with close ties to Putin have amassed fortunes that his family also benefits from.
“He keeps his money in the West,” Browder said in his 2017 testimony, but that money is “potentially exposed to asset freezes and confiscation.” Although the exact location of Putin’s financial holdings remains a mystery, it’s unlikely he keeps money in the U.S.— suggesting the Biden administration’s decision to join E.U. leaders in freezing his assets is largely a symbolic move. Sanctioning Putin and Lavrov “sends a clear message about the strength of the opposition to the actions by President Putin and the direction in his leadership of the Russian military,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday.
Read More: What Biden’s Sanctions Will Actually Do
Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny wrote to TIME’s Simon Shuster in November that U.S. sanctions would be far more effective by going after Putin’s own fortune as well as assets his allies keep for him in Western banks. “It’s really simple,” Navalny wrote. “You want to influence Putin, then influence his personal wealth. It’s right under your backside.” Navalny’s foundation sent a similar message to the White House early last year, asking for sanctions against 35 of Russia’s most senior officials and oligarchs close to Putin, some of whom were later sanctioned.
Navalny has tried to do his part in exposing some of Putin’s hidden wealth. In January, he released a video that shows a $1.4 billion palace on Russia’s Black Sea that Putin allegedly owns. The property features an underground ice rink, two helipads, an arboretum, an amphitheater and a casino, though Putin denies being the owner.
Personal sanctions on foreign dignitaries can be a potent tool. The top officials of Syria and Belarus were sanctioned by the E.U., and leaders of Myanmar, Venezuela and Hong Kong have faced personal sanctions from the U.S. These types of sanctions can prevent leaders from traveling to and from certain jurisdictions, and ban companies from engaging in any sort of transaction with those leaders.
For Putin, freezing portions of his wealth could be a significant blow. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Pesko has warned that personal sanctions on Putin would be “politically destructive,” but Putin may already be worried. Just two weeks before Russian forces invaded Ukraine, a $125 million superyacht he reportedly owns was spotted sailing on the Baltic Sea from Germany to Russia, before its scheduled repairs were completed. The yacht features a 49-foot indoor pool that can be converted into a dance floor.
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