Russian oligarchs have been targeted by Western countries sanctions but Russia’s elite security figures are just as powerful, if not more so

  • Oligarchs have been the target of Western countries’ sanctions amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
  • Over the years, however, a new group of powerful elites have sprung up — silovarchs.
  • Prof. Daniel Treisman, who coined the term, told Insider about their influence and history.

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has sparked sanctions from world leaders, hitting the country’s wealthiest businessmen.

The European Union recently drew up a sanctions list targeting Russian oligarchs, including Alexei Mordashov, who owns property worth millions and is the richest person in Russia, according to Forbes. Roman Abramovich has also been under much scrutiny, as Insider’s Kate Duffy reported.

The US has also sanctioned oligarchs and others, including the influencer daughter of Putin’s spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov.

Daniel Treisman, who is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Insider that most of Russia’s key businessmen made their billions in the early Putin period when the Russian economy recovered and the stock market soared.

He said: “The original oligarchs from the early 1990s — those that have survived — are a relatively small minority. There are many who emerged after the financial crisis of 1998.”

However, in the space vacated by the departing oligarchs, a new business elite has sprung up: silovarchs. This is an umbrella term coined by Treisman, which combines the words oligarch and siloviki. The latter translates as “people of force” and encompasses leading officials from the security services and law enforcement.

Meanwhile, the oligarch title was first given to major businessmen who emerged from privatization in Russia in the 1990s, according to Treisman. “The most notorious oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, claimed in the mid-90s that just seven big businessmen controlled half of the Russian economy,” he said.

It wasn’t true, Treisman said, but the image stuck. He added: “They mostly accumulated initial capital through speculation and other kinds of arbitrage in the first hyperinflationary years of the post-communist collapse and then used that capital to buy stakes in the state enterprises that were being sold off.”

These days, Russia’s most notable business figures are dependent on the Kremlin to continue making money, according to Treisman. So despite Western countries’ imposing sanctions on oligarchs to pressure Putin, “none of them are in a position to put pressure on [him],” Treisman said.

While we know of oligarchies — power structures dominated by oligarchs — lesser-known silovarchies, the natural home of a silovarch, are also notable. These are states in which veterans of the security services or armed forces dominate both politics and big businesses.

Why do silovarchs matter?

Treisman, who coined the term in 2006, said that in the mid-2000s, close associates of Putin’s, who were mostly from the security services, began to get very rich. “They benefited from state contracts. In part, they used powers of law enforcement to intimate private businessmen and expropriate their companies,” he said.

Silovarchs have existed in various countries, including South Korea and Indonesia. They “can deploy intelligence networks, state prosecutors, and armed forces to intimidate or expropriate business rivals,” said Treisman, who added that this differs from the powers that oligarchs have.

In fact, oligarchs have always been less politically powerful than many believed, Treisman said. He noted that in the 1990s, some thought they had a strong influence over Boris Yeltsin, who served as the first president of the Russian Federation from 1991 to 1999.

Treisman said: “In fact, that was an image that they cultivated, but greatly exaggerated. Since the mid-2000s, those oligarchs that survived were deferential to the Kremlin and performed jobs for Putin when asked — for instance, constructing the infrastructure for the Sochi Olympics.”

According to Treisman, while many benefited from state contracts and other state favors, and many also had influence over law enforcement and security service officials lower down the hierarchy, they were not allowed to play a political role of any kind without the Kremlin’s permission.

Questions remain as to whether silovarchs will continue to wield so much power in future.

As Treisman’s 2006 research paper pointed out, silovarchies often face severe succession crises. This is “because as the inner circle of silovarchs enrich themselves, they become hostages of their politicized enforcement apparatus, which rivals might use to expropriate them if they step down,” Treisman stated in the paper.