Elite fears Putin will precipitate a disaster

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Moscow - Russia’s richest businessmen are increasingly frantic that President Vladimir Putin’s policies in Ukraine will lead to crippling sanctions but are too scared of reprisals to say so publicly, according to several billionaires and analysts.

If Putin did not move to end the war in Ukraine in the wake of last week’s downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet, he risked becoming an international outcast, a Russian billionaire said on condition of anonymity.

What was happening was bad for business and bad for Russia, he said.

“The economic and business elite is just in horror,” Igor Bunin, who heads the Centre for Political Technology in Moscow, said. Nobody would speak out because of the implicit threat of retribution, Bunin said on Sunday. “Any sign of rebellion and they’ll be brought to their knees.”

The downing of the Malaysian airliner in rebel-held territory of Ukraine, which killed 298 people, led to renewed threats of deeper penalties by the US and the EU, which have already sanctioned Russian individuals and companies deemed complicit in fuelling the pro-Russian insurgency in that country.

UK Defence Minister Michael Fallon was cited by The Mail on Sunday as accusing Putin of “sponsored terrorism”.

Branding Russia, like Iran, a “state sponsor of terrorism”, as Fallon suggested, would be a major move that would have “a very significant impact on Russia and companies dealing with Russia”, said Timothy Ash, an emerging market economist at Standard Bank in London.

Russia was not concerned about the possibility of being labelled as a sponsor of terrorism, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Sunday.

While the EU has so far imposed less punitive measures against Russia than the US because of opposition from countries such as Italy and Austria, the UK and the Netherlands are leading the push for bolder action at a meeting of foreign ministers due today. Most of the victims aboard the plane, 193, were Dutch; 10 were British.

The US has already imposed penalties on state-run companies and members of Putin’s inner circle, including billionaires Gennady Timchenko and Arkady Rotenberg. The latest sanctions, announced a day before the Malaysia Airlines attack, barred Novatek, a gas producer partly owned by Timchenko, from using US debt markets for new financing with maturities longer than 90 days.

Novatek’s London shares fell 8 percent in two days, cutting its market value by almost $3 billion (R32bn).

Amid market turmoil provoked by the Ukraine conflict, the 19 richest Russians have lost $14.5bn since the start of the year, according to the Bloomberg billionaires index.

“The threat of sanctions against entire sectors of the economy is now very real and there are serious grounds for business to be afraid,” Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as Russia’s prime minister during Putin’s first term as president, from 2000 to 2004, said.

“If there will be sanctions against the entire financial sector, the economy will collapse in six months.” – Bloomberg


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