Oligarchs pay for Russia's slide

Russian oligarchs' power threatened
Russian oligarchs' power threatened   

For the past decade and a half, Russian oligarchs have built the biggest yachts, bought the most expensive mansions and bid for the top artworks in the world. But now, the billionaire beneficiaries of the Vladimir Putin era are getting squeezed.

The combination of sanctions, the falling ruble and continuous slide in oil prices is chopping billions from the fortunes of Russia's richest men (and they are all men). We shouldn't feel sympathy for these strongmen of Russia, since the 110 richest Russians control 35 percent of the economy.

Yet the current crisis in Russia could become the largest single wealth-destruction event in recent years.

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Among those who could get hardest hit is Gennady Timchenko, a close ally of Putin who's worth around $10 billion. Timchenko used to control the oil-trading giant Gunvor Group, but says he sold his shares just before the U.S. slapped sanctions on the company.

Russian billionaire Gennady Timchenko.
Olga Maltseva | AFP | Getty Images
Russian billionaire Gennady Timchenko.

It's unclear how far his fortunes have fallen, but Novatek, a gas producer in which he has a large stake, has lost more than a third of its value in recent weeks. He's also the target of a money laundering probe by U.S. prosecutors

Arkady Rotenberg could take a big financial hit. The 63-year-old co-owner of SMP Bank is one of Putin's former judo partners and his construction companies have made billions from government contracts for pipelines and bridges. With Moscow increasingly under financial pressure, it's unclear whether the government can keep up the building boom.

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What's more, Rotenberg—who is among those targeted by sanctionshas had to endure raids by the Italian police, who have seized some of his villas in Sardinia and a hotel in Rome.

Rosneft, the government-controlled oil giant, also has lost some of its market value in recent months. That could hit Igor Sechin, the company's chief and a man considered among the most powerful in Russia next to Putin.

Ironically, oligarchs who were forced to sell to Putin allies in recent years are now safe in cash. Mikhail Fridman, worth around $12 billion, sold the oil company TNK-BP to Rosneft for $55 billion. Rosneft is now worth less than $42 billion, but Fridman and his partner reportedly made $13 billion from the deal.

And Alisher Usmanov, Russia's richest man with a worth estimated at about $20 billion and the founder of conglomerate USM Holdings, has seen the stock market value of some of his companies fall rapidly in recent weeks. Shares of his cellphone company, MegaFon, have fallen by more than 40 percent.

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Yet Usmanov has likely more than made up the value of that decline with his soaring stake in Alibaba.