Seven weeks into the Ukrainian invasion our collective media is still wasting time kvetching about Putin’s personal wealth, yachts-yachts-yachts, and the oligarchs surrounding him: like any of these will move the needle on his decision making. Such speculation is pointless.
We know how in autocracies the lackeys misinform the dictators. Even our own mini-autocrat, our last president, got crazier and stupider as time went by, ever more surrounded by yes men and Kraken women. Autocrats and narcissists actively prune their circle of any dissenting voices: Trump didn’t even have the power to kill anybody. Imagine if he could have had dissenters jailed or killed like his idol Putin does, for over 22 years. RIP Rosie O’Donnell. Trump is no Putin, of course, but he evinces the mindset in a democracy’s context.
Putin’s crew, the current crop of doughy oligarchs are mainly Putin’s own creations, grown thanks to knowing him for decades and thus utterly beholden. Pursuant to that we also know censorship works up and down the chain of command and social hierarchies and that it is a central dysfunction of such rule: every truth is perverted to suit the Big Guy’s tastes. Add a bunch of isolation, paranoia and narcissism and a leader can make utterly terrible errors like invading a neighbor.
So the oligarchs are irrelevant, let’s forget them. Speculation about Putin’s personal wealth, boats, toys and the like is even more irrelevant. That kind of wealth may matter to non-billionaires like us, but in a dictatorship by definition, the dictator owns everything and theoretical, legal ownership is an abstraction. Literally everything in Russia is his.
The only – but only – time an autocrat’s wealth is important is in smaller cases like, say, Equatorial Guinea or Chad where the boss’ chances of being deposed and exiled are statistically high so he needs a cash landing crash pad in, say, Southern France.
Big time autocrats in large states like China and Russia operate at a higher level than the tin pot. As with everything: scale matters.
After all, do we imagine Putin cashing in his chips and retiring to Monaco? Even with non-prosecution agreements and somehow avoiding the The Hague, this is absurd. If powerful monsters like Ethiopia’s Mengistu can dance below international warrants decades after being deposed, surely Putin could. Several deposed African dictators, Cambodian genocideers and Slobodan Milosovich have ultimately faced justice but none commanded a nuclear superpower. Again, scale.
Another thing many seem to be getting wrong with the oligarchs, apart from the fact they have no input into the decision making process mentioned above, is “how did they get so rich illegally and what can we do about it?”
They got rich from knowing the right corrupt bureaucrats and bribery, however in terms of dirty money, any systemic scheme to fix this problem would by necessity require shining a light on the entire global elite. Removing any opacity from the enormous edifice of stolen wealth goes against the reality of being an ultra-rich criminal where safe harbor for ill gotten gains is guaranteed. It is currently impossible to pull away the anonymity of all sorts of tax evaders which would expose all the slimy creatures of our own making. These creatures aren’t without power in the deeply corrupt “civilized” countries of the rich world.
So where is this huge pile of cash – which could wipe out poverty on earth – laundered, hidden and banked? Not necessarily in obscure Caribbean coral-reef-with-flag countries or alpine trusts. Actually most dirty money and its trusts, lawyers, banks and investment companies are in places like Delaware, South Dakota, England, NYC real estate (Trump’s Russian apartment buyers) and other “ordinary” places, weaved deeply into our financial system. Witness the many top end uninhabited Manhattan apartments that are just lock-boxes for Emirati princes. A wholesale international effort against this elites serving system would ruffle too many feathers to ever be feasible.
Other methods of changing Putin’s mind are variously effective, though not the methods we think. Nearly all of the corporate sanctions are merely decorative and can be worked around: Russians will not oppose a popular (!) war because they can’t buy Big Macs. The only things that can move the needle are restricting financial drawing rights of Russian banks at Western (particularly our) central banks. Which we are doing and could do harder to the point of utterly ruining Russia: a bad move in a country that size. And petrochemical sales of course.
Even then, in the ultimate existential war of civilizations as this has been sold to Russians, no price is too high to pay.
Ten percent of humans attach great attention to dates, anniversaries and numerology as a placebo hedge against the uncertainty they think they can control. Putin seems to be one of these people: historically in speeches he has often tied propaganda to anniversaries and red letter days. Victory in World War II Day in Russia is May 9th, possibly a date by which Putin would like to have “won”. But ask anybody who has lived through a long war, say Lebanon or Syria how hilariously absurd predictions for a “short war” are.