Russia’s Oligarchs Whinge While Ukraine Burns

By William J. Furney

All night and well into the next day the waves crashed onto the volcanic shore; it sounded like mad bombs detonating. I had arrived again on the Spanish island of Lanzarote, just off the coast of West Africa, and a raging tempest was churning. 

Elsewhere, around Europe, stormclouds had burst and cast chaos and terror over a world that thought the dark days of the Cold War and nuclear annihalition were well since a fear of the past. 

My colleagues in Ukraine say they are enduring the terrifying ordeal Vladimir Putin’s regime is unleashing on them as the cold-blooded autocrat attempts to seize the country and that they are lucky to be “still alive”. Andrew tells me this weekend he is sending his family to safety in neighbouring Romania, and gives updates on their attempts to cross the border in the southwest. 

It’s a frenzied stab at safety that more than 1.5 million Ukrainians, the United Nations says, are making before their country is torn apart and devastated — as long as the long and grabbing arm of Putin doesn’t reach beyond the Eastern European nation. He’s already taken Crimea, Ukraine’s southern peninsula, and got away unscathed; now it’s on to a bigger, more unifying, prize. 

A weary world was just getting over a two-year-long bout of covid when the next global, and perhaps even more alarming, crisis struck. It had been festering in the background all along, a thorn in the muscular side of a thick-hided man with planet-size grievances over the East-West divide and where the real power should lie. 

Putin’s oligarch pals, who made their vast fortunes in oil, gas, mining and telecoms, are trembling in their designer boots, locked out of their bulging overseas accounts and fearful they may never see their foreign-berthed megayachts again, due to seizures of the outsize craft and travel bans also a result of sanctions against Russia’s mindless aggression. 

Some of these obscenely wealthy people with political influence, and the Russian president’s ear, are bawling that the measures imposed by the European Union, Britain, the United States and other nations following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last month are “unfair” — like Putin’s alleged favourite moneyman, Alisher Usmanov, worth around $17.6 billion and who was penalised by the EU

Alexey Miller, Igor Sechin, Oleg Deripaska and other close friends and associates of the warmongering Russian leader can’t seem to figure out why they are the target of financial sanctions when they have nothing to do with the military action. Putin, meanwhile, has hit out at the measures designed to keep his coffers low, calling the sanctions “illegal” and tantamount to a declaration of war.

Western leaders are most probably right in not going further and heeding Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s call for a no-fly zone over his country as it would risk dragging nations and NATO into the conflict that everyone is trying to halt, if not contain — as the civilian death and injury toll from the bombardments creeps towards 1,000 civilians, according to a UN. (The same UN that was set up after World War 2 to prevent outbreaks of conflict but has pitifully failed.)

Global brands like Apple, Ford, H&M, PayPal, Zara and many more can’t get out of Russia fast enough, sparking near-stampedes on stores ahead of their closure in the coming days. The Ukrainian government thinks the exodus of fashion and tech brands will spur many young Russians to see the error of their government’s ways and rise up. 

And Boris Jonhson wants the world to do more to help Ukraine, and has set out a six-point plan to resolve the conflict. 

“Never in my life have I seen an international crisis where the dividing line between right and wrong has been so stark, as the Russian war machine unleashes its fury on a proud democracy,” the British prime minister writes in today’s New York Times

The path to victory over Putin lay in forging an international humanitarian coalition, to help those fleeing Ukraine and people still in the country; providing Ukraine with more weapons; ratcheting-up economic sanctions, including booting all Russian banks out of the SWIFT bank-transfer system, not just a handful; stopping “creeping normalisation” of what Russia does to other countries, including invading Georgia in 2008; keeping diplomacy on the table; and bolstering security beyond NATO members. 

It’s a grand and comprehensive plan. But given Putin’s blinkered view of the world, it’s one that’s not likely to achieve anything in the way of and end to the war in Ukraine and lasting peace in Europe. The oligarchs will not be pleased.

  • Title image shows a burning building in the Ukraine capital, Kiev, on March 3. (Photo: Maxim Dondyuk)

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