The letter-writing campaign in pursuit of Russian sanctions relief


Some sanctioned Russian billionaires are deploying a new weapon in their bids to get western sanctions lifted: the character reference. 

Russian businessman and London resident Mikhail Fridman has collected at least a dozen letters from some of Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critics, defending his reputation and describing him as a man distant from the Kremlin and unfairly maligned. 

The private letters seen by the FT include several from top members of the Russian opposition, with one even writing in Fridman’s defence directly from jail. 

Fridman and his business partner Petr Aven have pursued a string of different strategies in a bid to get the sanctions lifted. On Thursday, the FT reported that they were set to sell their stakes in Alfa-Bank, the bank they founded and turned into Russia’s largest private lender. Fridman has also promised Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, support in exchange for a good word with the west over the sanctions — but to no avail.

So far, there has been no public indication that London or Brussels would lift their restrictions — despite attempts by some key figures in Russia’s opposition movement to convince them.

Some of the letters they penned, defending the Alfa founders from accusations of proximity to the Kremlin, were last week made public. Some are character witness statements, while others are letters addressed to EU leaders, and some call directly for the sanctions to be reconsidered.

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin, who was jailed last summer in Moscow over his antiwar speech, penned one letter about Fridman moments before his arrest, according to two sources. The second, sent last month to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, was a handwritten note he wrote from jail.

Fridman “interacted with the state, but nevertheless never compromised his reputation by participating in the current Russian government’s political projects,” Yashin wrote. His lawyer told the FT that she could not put questions about the letters to him until their next in-person meeting.

Two leaders of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, an organisation set up by jailed dissident Alexei Navalny, also wrote letters in the oligarchs’ support.

The group is known for its investigations into corruption by oligarchs and politicians, and it is the loudest voice calling for more individual sanctions on the Russian elite. 

So it came as a surprise to many to find out that Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, had written a letter last October to Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, calling for sanctions on some oligarchs to be removed.

On Thursday, Volkov stepped back from his role as chair of the foundation after an uproar. Volkov claimed nobody at the foundation knew he had written the letter on Navalny letterhead.

But Vladimir Ashurkov, a former senior Alfa executive and the foundation’s longtime executive director, also signed a letter in April last year, seen by the FT, at Fridman’s behest. He declined to comment to the FT.

Several other leading opposition figures, including the head of Memorial, a leading human rights group Russia shuttered shortly before the war began.

Beyond the furor, the letters do raise a key question about western sanctions, one year since they were first imposed: what’s the end-game?

The goal, Volkov argued in his letter to the EU at the time, should not be “to simply punish certain people”. Instead, sanctions should ultimately serve a political purpose: to create pressure on the Kremlin by causing destabilising fractures in the Russian elite.

For this, he argued, there needs to be an exit strategy. Given the choice, many oligarchs, he argued, would pick the west.

The idea has been voiced before, but has had little impact on sanctions policymakers in London and beyond. One explained to the FT, months back, that inducing behaviour change was simply not the point.

Resigning on Thursday, Volkov wrote: “This letter was a big political mistake.”

Few sanctioned Russians have managed to get the measures lifted, but this month is key as member states are due to extend the sanctions by March 15.

Nobel prizewinner Dmitry Muratov, the editor of the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper, wrote a letter to EU leaders listing Fridman’s past friendship with assassinated opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, his investments in Ukrainian businesses, and his sponsorship of charitable causes in Ukraine such as the construction of a Holocaust memorial centre at Babi Yar.

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