The letter campaign to lift Russian sanctions

Some sanctioned Russian billionaires are using a new weapon to try to lift Western sanctions: the character reference.

Russian businessman and London-based 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 remote from the Kremlin and unfairly vilified.

Among the private letters seen by the FT are several from top members of the Russian opposition, one of whom even wrote directly from prison in Fridman’s defense.

Fridman and his business partner Petr Aven have pursued various strategies to get the sanctions lifted. On Thursday, the FT reported that they were selling their stake in Alfa-Bank, the bank they founded and turned into Russia’s largest private lender. Fridman has also pledged support to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in exchange for a friendly word with the West about 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 the Russian opposition movement to persuade them.

Some of the letters they wrote defending the Alfa founders against allegations of closeness to the Kremlin were published last week. Some are testimonies, while others are letters to EU leaders, and some are directly calling for sanctions to be reconsidered.

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin, who was jailed in Moscow last summer for his anti-war speech, wrote a letter about Fridman shortly before his arrest, according to two sources. The second, sent to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen last month, was a handwritten note he wrote from prison.

Fridman “interacted with the state, but never compromised his reputation by participating in the political projects of the current Russian government,” Yashin wrote. His attorney told the FT that she could not ask him any questions about the letters until their next face-to-face meeting.

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

Known for its investigations into corruption among oligarchs and politicians, the group is the loudest voice calling for more individualized sanctions against Russia’s elite.

So it came as a surprise to many that Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, wrote a letter to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last October calling for sanctions against some oligarchs to be lifted.

Volkov resigned from his position as foundation chairman on Thursday after an uproar. Volkov claimed no one at the foundation knew he wrote the letter on Navalny letterhead.

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

Several other leading opposition figures, including the head of Memorial, a leading human rights group that Russia shut down just before the war began.

Excitement aside, the letters raise a key question about Western sanctions a year after they were first imposed: What is the endgame?

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

For that, he argued, an exit strategy is needed. Given the choice, many oligarchs would choose the West.

The idea has been floated before, but has had little impact on sanctions policymakers in London and beyond. One told the FT months ago that changing behavior is simply not what matters.

Volkov wrote when he resigned on Thursday: “This letter was a big political mistake.”

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

Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov, editor of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, wrote a letter to EU leaders detailing Fridman’s past friendship with assassinated opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, his investments in Ukrainian companies and his sponsorship of charities in of Ukraine like the construction of a Holocaust memorial in Babi Yar. The letter campaign to lift Russian sanctions

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