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Fearing sanctions, Russian Jewish billionaires balance philanthropy with ties to the Putin regime

Wealthy Russian-Jewish philanthropists make massive donations to Ukrainian causes as international screws tighten on Russian finances

Left to right: Mikhail Fridman (Facebook), Moshe Kantor (Twitter), Boris Mints (Wikimedia Commons)

Known collectively as oligarchs, some of Russia’s wealthiest individuals are of Jewish descent and have complex ties to both their motherland, as well as philanthropic causes in Israel and around the world. 

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, the international community is laying down heavy financial sanctions in order to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin into a ceasefire. 

One of those measures is to target Putin’s powerful oligarch allies who have succeeded in hiding much of their wealth abroad. But are the oligarchs generous philanthropists, enablers of Putin, or both? 

The three Russian Jewish billionaires Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan – believed to be worth $21 billion collectively, corresponding to the entire annual GDP of Lebanon – donated $10 million to Ukrainian Jewish communities just last week.

These oligarchs have also been accused of supporting the Putin regime but are likely seeking to create space between Putin and themselves in order to evade Western sanctions. 

However, it is unclear whether it will work. Despite the donation to Ukraine’s Jews, the European Union put Fridman, Aven and other wealthy Russian businessmen on its sanctions blacklist. 

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, articulated the importance of targeting wealthy Russian oligarchs who are believed to be financially supporting the Putin-led government. 

“With these additional sanctions, we are targeting all who are having a significant economic role in supporting Putin’s regime, and benefit financially from the system. These sanctions will expose the wealth of Putin’s elite. Those who enable the invasion of Ukraine will pay a price for their action,” Borrell said. 

In 2018, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released a list of Russian oligarchs who were identified as potential targets for sanctions due to their close ties to the Russian government. Referred to as the “Putin’s list,” the Treasury’s list consisted of approximately 200 prominent businessmen including 18 individuals of Jewish descent. 

While Israel and the Jewish world have welcomed the generous donations over the years from Russian Jewish oligarchs, the war in Ukraine has caused a division within the Israeli government over its ties with wealthy tycoons who have close ties to Putin. 

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid recently reportedly warned the Israeli government against assisting Jewish Russian oligarchs who are, or could become, targets for international sanctions. 

"You have to be very careful because those guys have connections and they can call you on the phone and ask you for things," Lapid said. 

Lapid stressed that Israeli interference could cause diplomatic damage for Jerusalem. 

"Don't commit to anything because it could cause diplomatic damage. Say you can’t help them and give them the number of the foreign ministry."

The Russian Jewish billionaire Roman Abramovich, another potential target for international sanctions, is a particularly sensitive case due to his Israeli citizenship and strong commitment to Jewish causes. In late February, Abramovich donated an unspecified amount of multi-million shekels to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. 

Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan expressed his gratitude. 

“We are deeply grateful to Roman Abramovich for this generous contribution that will significantly strengthen Yad Vashem’s mission,” Dayan stated. 

Yad Vashem urged the U.S. government to exempt Abramovich from sanctions due to his generous donations earmarked for preserving the memory of the Holocaust. 

The Russian Jewish oligarchs’ philanthropy is not limited to Jewish or Israel-related causes. Abramovich who has faced mounting criticism for his alleged ties to the Putin regime, recently announced that he would donate “all net proceeds” from his sale of the famous London-based Chelsea Football Club to “victims of the war in Ukraine” – likely an attempt to distance himself from the Russian president. 

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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