Mikhail Fridman, one of Russia’s richest men, has defended his decision not to criticize Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine directly, saying it would risk reprisals from the Kremlin against his workforce.
The Russo-Israeli magnate said on Tuesday that his London-based private equity group LetterOne was not at risk from the EU sanctions that authorities announced against him and his business partner Petr Aven on Monday.
“I’m thinking about the country, but I’m also thinking about the people working for us,” Fridman told a news conference in London when asked why he has not criticized Russia more directly.
“If I make any political statement that is unacceptable in Russia it will have very clear implications for the company, for our customers, for our creditors, for our stakeholders. I don’t have a right to push on that situation, ”Fridman said.
“They shouldn’t suffer, all these hundreds of thousands of people, just because I made a stupid statement,” he added.
Over the weekend, Fridman, who was born in Ukraine, described the war as a “tragedy” and that the war “can never be the answer”.
The EU on Monday sanctioned Fridman and Aven, alongside Russian oligarchs, officials, and state television propagandists, on the grounds that they supported Putin’s war effort by lobbying against Western sanctions, undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty, and being an “enabler of Putin’s inner circle.”
Fridman, the UK’s 11th richest man according to the Sunday Times, said he was “shocked” by the allegations and would contest them.
The sanctions are intended to put pressure on Putin to change course in Ukraine by harming figures judged to have influence over him. But Friedman said the decision “will not have any impact on political decisions in Russia” because he had no capacity to influence Putin.
“I would say vice versa, because if the sanctions make it impossible to live and make business here, I would be obliged to return back,” he said.
Friedman, who is a UK tax resident, added that he did not plan to return to Russia and did not think the sanctions would not force him to do so.
Fridman and Aven set up LetterOne in 2013 after their Russian investment vehicle, Alfa Group, netted $ 14bn from their share of the sale of oil major TNK-BP to state-run Rosneft.
It operates its pan-European energy, telecoms and retail empire from a large office in London’s Mayfair. Its investments include a stake in energy producer Wintershall Dea, Spanish supermarket Dia and health food retailer Holland & Barrett.
Neither Fridman nor Aven have 50 per cent stake in LetterOne, meaning it is not likely to be affected by EU sanctions directly.
Together with partners German Khan and Alexei Kuzmichev, Fridman and Aven also own Russian assets including Alfa-Bank, the country’s largest privately held bank, and X5, Russia’s largest supermarket chain.
Alfa-Bank is also the second largest private lender in Ukraine, where he and Khan are funding a memorial to the Babiy Yar massacre of Jews by Nazi Germany in 1941.
In response to western sanctions, which also limit Alfa-Bank’s ability to raise debt on international markets, Moscow has temporarily banned foreign investors from selling their Russian assets and placed capital controls restricting most foreign currency transactions abroad.
Hours after giving the order to invade Ukraine last week, Putin summoned Aven and about 40 other businessmen to the Kremlin, where he told them Russia would help businesses hit by Western sanctions – but told them they could face punishment if their companies complied with the restrictions , according to people briefed on the meeting.
“You understand the situation that is going on right now in Russia,” Fridman said.