Russia's Richest Get Richer -- Have the Sanctions Failed?

Western nations punished Russia's first invasion of Ukraine with five months of sanctions. As political leaders gear up for another round of sanctions, are Russia's businessmen feeling any pain at all?

Aug 30, 2014 at 10:08AM

Oops, Putin did it again.

In a reprise of events from March, Britain's BBC reported Thursday that two Russian tank columns have "rolled into southeastern Ukraine." Supported by Mi-8 military helicopters, armored personnel carriers, and Grad multiple rocket launchers, the Russian troops shelled a Ukrainian border post, routing the defenders, before moving on to capture the port city of Novoazovsk. 

Red Storm Rising? Russian T-72 main battle tank. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

While Russia's defense ministry insists that reports of the invasion bear "no relation to reality," a Ukrainian rebel spokesmen confirm that as of today, "3,000 to 4,000" Russian soldiers are now fighting alongside them. ("But they are on leave" from the official Russian Army, say the rebels.)

As for the BBC, it's quoting Institute for Strategic Studies analyst Joseph Dempsey, who has reviewed footage of the Russian armored columns, saying that they include "a type of tank, the T-72 BM, which is only in service within the Russian army ... it is clearly a tank that could only be provided by Russia."


Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev reviews the troops. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Responding to the incursion, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has announced that Ukraine is reinstating its military draft, and will be shifting more troops to the east to deal with the threat. Meanwhile, at last report, NATO was planning to hold an emergency meeting Friday, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel was planning a meeting to "discuss the possibility of further sanctions on Russia" at an EU summit on Saturday

But can sanctions truly suffice to curb Russian aggression in Ukraine?

Survey says...
Perhaps not. Last week, Singaporean wealth-research firm Wealth-X published the results of a survey of how Russia's business billionaires have fared under the current sanctions regime -- which has been ratcheting up the pressure ever since Russia invaded Crimea back in March.

Oligarchs like Alisher Usmanov, Viktor Vekselberg, and Mikhail Fridman -- in theory, these are folks with the most to lose from economic sanctions imposed upon Russia. They're the people that many experts hope will ultimately pressure President Putin to pull back from his Ukrainian adventure. But according to Wealth X, Russia's oligarchs are weathering the economic storm quite handily.

Indeed, based on data current as of Aug. 21, Wealth X reports that Russia's top 10 "richest tycoons" have seen their net worths swell by $3 billion since the March invasion of Ukraine.

Results may differ
True, individual oligarchs have been hurt somewhat. Investment banker Gennady Timchenko, for example, is reported to have lost $1 billion over the past five months, and is now worth "only" $12.2 billion, while Renova Group owner Viktor Vekselberg has lost about $300 million. But Alfa Group founder Mikhail Friedman has suffered no net loss whatsoever. Nor has metals and mining kingpin Alisher Usmanov, reportedly Russia's richest man.

Meanwhile, both Novatek CEO Leonid Mikhelson and metals magnate Vladimir Potanin have seen their wealth swell by more than $1 billion apiece -- and as a whole, the group is wealthier today than they were before Ukraine burst into flame. Here's how the numbers break down, according to Wealth X data:

Source: WealthX

What it means for investors
Thursday was a miserable day for U.S. stock investors owning foreign-listed shares of popular Russian stocks, with telecom holdings Mobile TeleSystems (NYSE:MBT) and VimpelCom (NASDAQ:VIP) both down about 2%, Internet search firm Yandex (NASDAQ:YNDX) off 2%, and financial services provider Qiwi (NASDAQ:QIWI) sliding a distressing 5%-plus.

So far, though, Russia's richest men aren't feeling your pain. To the contrary, they're sitting pretty. Until that changes, U.S. investors may just have to grin and "bear" the pain of investing in Russian stocks.

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Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Yandex. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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