Sanctions, oligarch Vladimir Potanin saved thanks to nickel: a squeeze on his mines would stop the economy

from Paolo Valentino

Loyal to Putin, the second richest man in Russia, he is off the sanctions list: a squeeze on his mines in Siberia would send the world economy into a tailspin

BERLIN – They are hard times for the Russian oligarchs. Western sanctions do not they restrict freedom of movement and freeze fabulous assets abroad: villas and yachts seized, credit cards blocked, bank accounts unreachable. The United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom punish them for their closeness and political and financial support to Vladimir Putin and his war of aggression.

Yet not all oligarchs are the same in the eyes of the West. There are some more equal than others. And compared to the almost 40 multi-billionaires sanctioned, there are at least as many that remain still off the blacklist. A somewhat hypocritical combination of political, economic and geostrategic evaluations in fact pushes Western countries to spare them.

Of all, the most sensational case is that of Vladimir Potanin, 61 years old and assets that were valued at over $ 30 billion before the war began, which makes him the second richest man in Russia. Yet, we are talking about a very loyal of the Tsar, whom he has loyally supported since the beginning, always ready to fulfill his wishes and play according to his rules, even when in hockey matches – one of the passions he shares with Putin along with skiing – it was necessary to do so. score and win.

But despite this, Potanin continues to travel, enjoy his two super yachts, act on the markets, even on behalf of the Kremlin, as if there was no war. For the sake of completeness of information, his name appears on the list of sanctions approved by Australia and Canada, but neither the United States nor the EU have any intention of adding him to theirs. Because?

The answer is simple: Potanin is the majority shareholder of Norilsk Nickel, a Siberian mining company that produces 15% of the nickel and 40% of the palladium used in the world, two essential raw materials respectively for the manufacture of microchips and cars. Sanctioning it would risk exploding the price of the two metals, with devastating consequences on supplies for the automotive and semiconductor industries.

Potanin’s exemption from sanctions is a blessing for the Kremlin, which thanks to him is regaining control of a series of banks, hastily sold off by Western groups that left Russia after February 24 or by other oligarchs who dared to criticize. war. Like this, his Interros group bought back Rosbank from Société Générale, to which he had sold it in 2008. And when the Russian billionaire living in London, Oleg Tinkov, was forced by the Kremlin to sell his 35% of the thriving Tinkoff Bank for calling the action of the army “lousy” on Instagram Russian in Ukraine, Potanin was quick to take over. “For a ridiculous price, 3% of its real value,” accuses Tinkov.

Born into a family of the communist nomenklatura, Potanin followed his father into a privileged career as an official in the USSR Ministry of Commerce until 1990, when he took advantage of the chaos of Gorbachev’s perestroika to found Interros with a capital of 10,000 dollars lent to him by state organizations. Two years later, his Uneximbank became the reference bank of the new Russian state: from 300 million dollars in 1992, his assets increased to 2 billion in 1994.

But his masterpiece he did the following year. It was he, in fact, who engineered the “theft of the century”, the scheme that went down in history with the name of loans for shares, equity loans. With Boris Yeltsin increasingly unpopular in the country and the certain prospect of losing the 1996 elections, the group of the original six oligarchs “lent” the government billions of dollars (actually deposited in their banks by the government itself) while obtaining state property as collateral. and knowing they would never be repaid. When the country, under the agreement, defaulted on loans, the oligarchs found themselves owners of the finest pieces of public goods. Potanin, the mastermind of the plan, touched Norilsk Nickel: he paid 170 million dollars for it, the same year in which the company recorded revenues of 3.3 billion dollars. In return, the oligarchs spent unlimited spending on supporting the Yeltsin campaign, deploying their televisions, hiring teams of American strategists or simply buying millions of votes. Yeltsin was re-elected. As an added reward, Potanin became deputy premier, a position he held for two years.

When Vladimir Putin arrived in the Kremlin in 2000, Potanin swore allegiance to the new tsar, accepted his diktat to stay out of politics, and was one of the few original oligarchs to survive, keeping his property and continuing to enrich himself. He did even more, indulging Putin’s dreams of grandeur: he first invested in a ski resort in Sochi and was the main campaign lobbyist who brought the 2014 Winter Olympics to the Black Sea city.

Meanwhile, he took care of his image in the West, generously funding the University of Oxford and getting himself elected by millions to the board of the Guggenheim Foundation, positions he left after February 24. Potanin also tried to “clean up” the reputation of Norilsk Nickel, one of the most polluting companies in the world, which in 2020 made two rivers in Siberia amaranth-colored with its discharges. The disaster earned him a public reprimand of Putin and a $ 2 billion fine, which he paid to the Russian treasury without a word. On February 24, Potanin was among the 40 oligarchs summoned by Putin in the Kremlin and he was not among those who expressed fears about their own activities. Evidently, he felt safe. For him, no sanctions and still big business.

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