David M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images; Pavel Golovkin/AFP via Getty Images; Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images; Alexander Aleshkin/Epsilon/Getty Images
From left: Roman Abramovich, Moshe Kantor, Mikhail Fridman, and Petr AvenDavid M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images; Pavel Golovkin/AFP via Getty Images; Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images; Alexander Aleshkin/Epsilon/Getty Images
Navigate to News section

The Fate of Putin’s Jewish Oligarchs

Their extreme wealth and generous giving to Jewish causes speak to a precarious balancing act that the war in Ukraine may have permanently undone

by
Armin Rosen
March 23, 2022
David M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images; Pavel Golovkin/AFP via Getty Images; Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images; Alexander Aleshkin/Epsilon/Getty Images
From left: Roman Abramovich, Moshe Kantor, Mikhail Fridman, and Petr AvenDavid M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images; Pavel Golovkin/AFP via Getty Images; Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images; Alexander Aleshkin/Epsilon/Getty Images

From the moment Russian troops began marching across the Ukrainian border, the United States and its allies sought a response that could match the severity of Vladimir Putin’s invasion without actually entering the conflict. To mirror the swiftness and shock of Putin’s invasion, Washington and Western European governments froze Russia’s access to 87% of its $630 billion in foreign reserves that aren’t held in Chinese yuan, and took over the assets of Russians accused of aiding Moscow’s war machine. The new measures appeared with disorienting speed. “Having been at the Treasury, [I know] it could take years to get to this level of economic sanctions,” former U.S. government sanctions official Ari Redbord recently told The Scroll, Tablet’s daily newsletter. “We are here in a week at what I described as ‘the nuclear option.’”

In the opening days of the war, Russian banks were booted off the SWIFT payment clearance system, while U.S. and EU-based energy companies fled their multi-billion-dollar projects in the country. European governments have been seizing yachts and real estate belonging to wealthy Russians. Less than a week into the war, Roman Abramovich, the billionaire Putin confidante and former Russian regional governor, announced that he would sell his thriving Chelsea soccer club, one of the most valuable sports franchises on Earth. A few days later, the U.K. froze his assets, immediately severing him from the world-famous $3 billion property.

That Abramovich was considered a mainstream enough member of the global business community to own a flagship Premier League franchise for over 18 years exposes many of the contradictions in the Western campaign against Putin. Despite well-documented wrongdoing—in Syria, Crimea, Georgia, and within his own borders—Putin’s regime was never thought of as being so horrible that Goldman Sachs, BP, and the German government couldn’t forge lucrative business ties with Moscow. FIFA might have suspended Russia from World Cup competition on Feb. 28, but soccer’s global governing body held the actual World Cup there in 2018, a few years after Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his rescue of Bashar Assad in Syria. It is impractical to level punishment against Western entities for their then-entirely legal business relationships with a regime that’s only now seen as uniquely evil: Exxon wasn’t violating any law in any country when it built up $4 billion in assets in Putin’s Russia. At the same time, responsibility for sustaining Putin’s regime clearly lies far beyond just the Russian individuals and institutions who were added to the sanctions list in the frantic days after the outbreak of the first European war in a generation.

Jewish communities face their own dilemma of how and whether to assess culpability for the Ukraine catastrophe, a problem embodied in Abramovich. The oligarch had reportedly made an 8-figure donation to Yad Vashem, which Israel’s official Holocaust memorial claims it never received; recipients of money that Abramavich donated as part of a 2019 match between Chelsea and the Robert Kraft-owned New England Revolution included the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Agency. Abramovich provided substantial funding for the Holocaust galleries at the Imperial War Museum in London, and launched a high-profile “Say No to Antisemitism” campaign through Chelsea that partnered with the World Jewish Congress, among other organizations. In total, Abramovich has given an estimated half-billion dollars to Jewish causes. He also holds Israeli citizenship. But when his private jet landed at Ben-Gurion Airport on March 15, the trip proved revealingly brief—Abramovich was back in the air within a matter of hours, headed for Moscow. “I think he knows enough people here who can tell him if he’s not wanted,” says Ksenia Svetlova, a former member of the Knesset with the centrist Zionist Union and a current fellow at Mitvim, a Jerusalem-based foreign policy think tank.

Abramovich isn’t the only Russian Jewish oligarch to focus on Jewish causes. Mikhail Fridman, the founder of Alfa Bank, launched the Genesis Philanthropy Group, which is mostly aimed at supporting Russian-speaking Jews around the world, with his longtime business partners Petr Aven and German Khan. All three are under EU sanctions now, too. Earlier this week, they announced they would be stepping down from the Genesis Group’s board. Fridman, Aven, and Khan are also founders of the Genesis Prize, the so-called “Jewish Nobel” and a platform that once helped them set the terms for who and what should be valued in global Jewish life. Moshe Kantor, head of the European Jewish Congress, major funder of Holocaust and antisemitism-related programs around the world, and billionaire owner of one of Russia’s largest fertilizer companies, isn’t currently sanctioned, but is perceived as close enough to Putin to be an obvious target for the United States and the EU as the war drags on.

Russian oligarchs have become a part of the architecture of Jewish communal life, in the same way that they were accepted elements of the broader global economy until last month. Israel’s pragmatically warm relationship with Russia—whose army is deployed throughout neighboring Syria and effectively controls Israel’s ability to strike at Iranian targets there—was similarly treated as noncontroversial, or at least as no worse than the German establishment’s widely tolerated closeness with Putin’s regime. Fairly or not, the rules have now changed. As the war escalates, the choices facing Jewish organizations that receive money from wealthy Russian Jews, and who hope to reach Jews inside Russia itself, will only get more complicated. “A lot of major Jewish nonprofits have to really tread carefully over the next few weeks,” says Kalman Sporn, a Washington-based strategist who has been advising groups on their exposure to the new sanctions. “There is a lack of clarity.”

Thanks to Chelsea, Abramovich is the best known of the Jewish oligarchs who donate to Jewish causes, but Fridman, Aven, and Khan are perhaps even more deeply embedded in Jewish communal life around the world. “Fridman is more of a classic philanthropist in the sense that he really cares,” said one senior leader of a U.S. Jewish organization who wished to remain anonymous. “I think he’s the one of the three that cares the most” the source added, referring to Abramovich and Kantor.

In 2008, Fridman launched the Genesis Philanthropy Group as an umbrella organization for his work in the Jewish world. The organization has an office in New York, where its CEO is based, but is incorporated in the U.K. and Israel. The U.K. entity has only disclosed donations to a half-dozen groups in the United States, England, and Canada in 2019 and 2020, with the top grantee, London’s JW3 Jewish community center, getting about $600,000. This relatively sparse record implies that the grants to the organizations listed on the Genesis website, which includes groups like Hillel International and Friends of the IDF, are being made from jurisdictions other than the U.K. or the United States. Genesis supported Moishe Houses in Russia and Ukraine, and funded Birthright trips for Russian-speaking students. In the United States, they have given grants to nonprofits like the Joint Distribution Committee, the group known for assisting Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants, and funded programs at PJ Library meant to reach Russian-speaking Jewish families in the United States. In Israel, Genesis launched the Our Common Destiny initiative aimed at uniting Jews around the world, an effort that received the endorsement of Reuven Rivlin, then Israel’s president. The group also announced it would provide $10 million in emergency assistance for Ukrainian Jews on March 3, just days after the invasion began.

In mid-March, the “leadership” section was removed from the front page of the group’s website, making it harder to find links to biographies of Fridman and Aven. Around that time, a staffer at the Washington, D.C.-based PR firm West End Strategy declined a request for comment on the Genesis Philanthropy Group’s behalf. In what is undoubtedly a harsh blow to Vladimir Putin’s war machine, the U.K. froze the charity’s bank accounts in that country on March 18.

Genesis isn’t really set up as a vehicle for Fridman or his partners to promote themselves or raise their profiles abroad. “The foundation is not the individual. If you get a grant from Genesis, you don’t interact with Fridman at all. You don’t even meet him,” said the U.S. Jewish organizational leader. It is indeed unclear what political clout one gets from funding Moishe House, although for some, this lack of public association between Fridman and Genesis might only prove the insidiousness of his style of influence-peddling. After all, as Genesis’ U.K. charitable disclosure documents note, the group does not raise its own funds, meaning it exists to spend Fridman, Aven, and Khan’s money. More generously, it is possible that the oligarchs’ concern for the world’s Jews has less to do with laundering their reputations than with a sincere desire to put their fortunes to good use.

Born in Lviv, in what is now western Ukraine, Fridman spent his student years in Moscow, giving him an early appreciation for the opportunities created by a faltering Soviet Union—he eventually set up an import-export house in Switzerland just before the collapse of communism. Alfa Bank, which Fridman co-founded with Aven and Khan, grew to become the largest Russian private bank that the government didn’t effectively control. In 2013, the Russian state company Rosneft paid $28 billion for Alfa’s 50% share in a large Russian oil company in the group’s portfolio, a transaction in which observers believe the government gave a 40%-60% premium—Rosneft paid BP, the owner of the other 50% of the same company, just $17 billion. Much of Fridman’s and Aven’s fortune comes from a suspicious overpayment that came straight from Putin’s regime, and it is legitimate to wonder what the Russian president might have expected or demanded in return.

A Russian anti-corruption activist working in the United States noted that Alfa had given loans to a major Russian military factory and was caught selling oil to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “Can you imagine selling oil to Saddam Hussein and not being connected to Russian security services?” the source asked. But establishing Fridman’s culpability isn’t so straightforward. Anyone in business in Russia needed to reach an accommodation with Putin—wealth and power in Putin’s Russia flows from the presidency downward, and anyone with substantial amounts of money has no choice but to obey the Kremlin’s rules, at least if they want to remain in Russia (or stay out of prison, or worse). Again, this is a reality that western firms readily accepted as the price of doing business in Russia up until a month ago, and somewhat close to what they still accept as the price of access to the Chinese market. How blameworthy it might be for actual Russians to abide by those same parameters, within a country where their families and much of their wealth is physically located, is a highly subjective question.

It is also unclear whether any oligarch is in a position to change Putin’s mind on much of anything. The oligarchs do not act as a council of advisers, and they are not people whose opinion carries any special weight with Russia’s despotic president. It’s really the other way around: Their existence depends on whether Putin permits them to exist, and their safety is in danger if they stray too far outside the regime’s limits. This might be especially true of Fridman, Abramovich, and Aven, who were all rich men before Putin came to power, and who are not hardcore loyalists or straightforward apparatchiks the way a true believer like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin is.

Edoardo Saravalle, a Columbia University law student who has worked on sanctions policy at the Center for a New American Security and on the Senate Banking Committee, says that the sanctions on individual oligarchs are likely a minor annoyance for the Kremlin compared to other penalties the United States and its allies have leveled, like the unprecedented western freeze-out of the Central Bank of Russia. “There’s a sense that it’s a way to get rid of a perceived hypocrisy and kind of cleanse the system,” Saravalle says of targeting oligarchs—the democratic world wants to go after Putin without continuing to provide a safe haven for business figures who are viewed as being in his orbit. Seizing oligarchs’ property is also a “populist” move, Saravalle says, an unmistakable public action against Putin’s perceived henchman. But, he added, “I’d say the symbolism has also taken on a life of its own … In terms of what is likely to change the calculus, I don’t think seizing a yacht is going to do it, as opposed to being unable to pay one’s debt.” If Russia defaults on its sovereign debt, as seems possible, it won’t be because Chelsea was taken away from Roman Abramovich. A default would happen because doing any kind of business with any Russian bank is now basically illegal across wide swaths of the globe.

EU regulators believe they’ve answered any sticky questions about whether the oligarchs are responsible for the war in Ukraine, and whether expropriating their wealth and shutting down their charities will actually make any difference. The Feb. 28 sanctions citation for Petr Aven calls him “one of Vladimir Putin’s closest oligarchs.” Meanwhile, Fridman “has been referred to as a top Russian financier and enabler of Putin’s inner circle.” Both businessmen are being punished for “support[ing] actions or policies which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine,” though the notices do not go into any specifics. On March 1, Fridman said the war in Ukraine was a “tragedy” that “should stop.” Two days later, Genesis announced it had committed $10 million to helping Ukrainian Jews.

“Like so many around the world, we are heartbroken by the terrible events unfolding in Ukraine,” said Steve Rakitt, president of the Genesis Prize Foundation, when reached by email on March 8. “The recent events have no impact on The Genesis Prize Foundation. Our priorities remain unchanged and we are moving forward with our work as planned.”

They became instruments of Putin’s control over the country’s Jewish life, which was an extension of his method of running the country at large.

There’s another, much less politically ambiguous side of Abramovich, Fridman, Aven, Khan, and Kantor’s Jewish engagement. Outside of Russia, the oligarchs could position themselves as well-meaning and even liberal-minded patrons of Jewish causes. Inside of Russia, they became instruments of Putin’s control over the country’s Jewish life, which was an extension of his method of running the country at large.

Prior to Putin’s ascension to the presidency in 2000, the leading Jewish organization in Russia was the Russian Jewish Congress, led by Vladimir Gushinsky and co-founded by Fridman. As Putin consolidated control, and as criticism of the Kremlin from Gushinksy’s outlets became less tolerated, Putin sidelined and then exiled Gushinsky through a trumped-up criminal investigation. At the same time, the Russian president incorporated more of Fridman’s Alfa Bank into his regime’s activities and boosted the alternative Federation of Jewish Communities, with the help of Roman Abramovich.

Both Abramovich and Fridman went on to provide substantial funding for the controversial, Russian government-associated memorial at Babyn Yar in Ukraine, site of the German massacre of Kyiv’s Jews during World War II. “Fridman is useful inside Russia for pushing an official line on secular Jewish life,” says the Russian anti-corruption activist. Similarly, Moshe Kantor, the fertilizer magnate, became the driving force behind the European Jewish Congress, a means of making the Russian government a factor in Jewish life in the rest of the continent. Fresh off of Gushkinsky’s grim example, and faced with little alternative if they wanted to continue living and working in Russia, Jewish oligarchs whose safety and fortunes could evaporate at Putin’s whim proved willing to play their appointed role within the country’s autocratic system.

Abramovich’s, Fridman’s, and Aven’s careers in Jewish philanthropy speak to a careful balancing act, permanently undone by Putin’s war. For years, they protected themselves from Putin and remained accepted figures in the international business world while demonstrating a greater interest in Jewish life than many of their non-Orthodox counterparts in the United States. It is likely their involvement in Jewish affairs wasn’t merely self-interested, and instead stemmed from their experiences as Jews living under a Soviet regime that had stigmatized their identity.

“They were outsiders growing up and the world reminded them they were Jewish,” says Leonard Petlakh, the Minsk-born executive director of JCC Brooklyn. Petlakh says the organization received small amounts of money from Genesis, perhaps a total of $15,000-$20,000, for a PJ Library-related program aimed at Russian-speaking Jewish families. Petlakh does not believe that a loss of Genesis funding, if it comes to that, would cut off so much money that it would significantly weaken any major New York-area Jewish organization. Still, Petlakh said in reference to super-wealthy Russia-based Jews, “we are lucky in the Jewish communal world that many of them have this elevated sense of their Jewish identity.”

Whether it is desirable or even possible to exclude Abramovich, Fridman, and Aven from Jewish life isn’t an easy question to answer, especially with hundreds of thousands of Jews still living in a suddenly impoverished and even more oppressive Russia, along with thousands of Russian-speaking Jews under threat from the war in Ukraine. From a spike in oil prices to the unprecedented and rapid halt in Western businesses and services in a country that was, until very recently, treated as a perfectly acceptable player in the global economy, the United States and its allies are already learning that sealing Russia off from the rest of the world isn’t simple or cost-free. Jewish organizations, and the communities they serve, are in for a similar round of unpleasant discoveries about what is and isn’t possible in this chaotic new world.

Israel is being forced to learn the new terrain in real time. Despite having the Russian military on its border, despite voting to condemn Putin’s invasion at the United Nations, and despite Prime Minister Naftali Bennet’s mediation efforts between Russia and Ukraine, Israel has come in for a kind of criticism that other U.S. allies, like neutral India and South Africa, have somehow avoided. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland recently warned Israel against becoming “a last haven for dirty money fueling Putin’s war,” and the United States has called for Israel to join the Western sanctions regime. Perhaps it’s even punished Israel for not joining so already: On March 16, an unnamed Biden administration official told The New York Times that an Iranian-backed militia strike near a U.S. Consulate in northern Iraq was in fact targeting a secret Israeli facility, potentially exposing an ally’s highly sensitive ongoing intelligence operation on foreign soil.

It is far from clear that it would make strategic sense for the Jewish state to fully join the United States in pressuring Russia, a move that would undermine Israel’s position as a potential peace broker. Svetlova, the former member of the Knesset, says that as a result of a sanctions regime that Israel hasn’t formally joined, ordinary Israelis with Russian citizenship—along with Israeli citizens living in Russia—have had their bank accounts in Israel frozen as Israeli financial institutions attempt to comply with the new and hastily made EU and U.S. rules. “If you’re some average Joe from Russia who decided to make aliyah now, you can’t withdraw your money right now,” she says.

The relationship between Israel and Russia has already been transformed, Svetlova explains, with Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid showing a “departure from the more traditional Israeli silence on things … the mere fact that Lapid uttered the words ‘denunciation of Russian violence’—this is something you could never imagine under Netanyahu.” But Israel is being pressured to go much further. Jerusalem and the global Jewish community might be surprised by how little goodwill they will get for shunning Roman Abramovich.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.

Thank you for reading Tablet.

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them. Help us do what we do.