Putin Is Still Backed by Russia’s One Percent. Here’s Why.
Policy + Politics

Putin Is Still Backed by Russia’s One Percent. Here’s Why.

REUTERS/Mykhailo Palinchak/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters

The segments of the Russian population that, arguably, have the best chance to dissuade President Vladimir Putin from his actions in Ukraine are business leaders and the rich. But despite having lost millions of dollars because of sanctions against Russia, the falling ruble and low oil prices, they still rally behind their leader—both privately and publicly.

Despite a cease-fire announced Thursday, Western sanctions on Russia over its support of insurgents in neighboring Ukraine have already pushed Russia's borrowing costs higher and crushed its currency. The problems have been made worse by the price of oil, whose fall since September has further undercut the petro-state's ability to fund itself.

Related: Putin Sent Weapons to Ukraine Amid Peace Talks

Yet Putin still enjoys broad domestic support, and experts tell CNBC that the country's monied class is no exception. Timothy Ash, who heads emerging markets research at Standard Bank, summarizes the phenomenon in a few words: "Nationalism plays very well with many people," he told CNBC. 

Marlen Kruzhkov, a Ukrainian-American attorney whose clients include oligarchs and other wealthy people in Russia and the former Soviet Union, recently returned from a trip to Moscow. 

"I was surprised that despite the dire economic circumstances and all the uncertainty people are facing, there is still overwhelming support for President Putin's policies regardless of the impact it's having on their bottom line," Kruzhkov told CNBC.

Kruzhkov had meetings and talks with clients in various sectors of the business community including real estate development, retail, trucking, food (both restaurants and fast food franchises) as well as the oil and mineral business. He said those businessmen and women see the conflict as an issue of geopolitical security and safety which, in their mind, trumps economic consequences.

Related: Vladimir Putin: 17 Things You Never Knew

Alexander Kliment, director of Russia research at Eurasia Group, said the sanctions have actually strengthened elite support for Putin because they have bolstered the government's position as a last-resort lender for them. 

"Also, sanctions have inflamed patriotic sentiment and been a convenient scapegoat for economic woes," Kilment told CNBC.

"If you are an oligarch, it's bad to suffer sanctions from the West," he said, "but you're still pretty well-off as part of the Russian system. It's an awfully big leap to turn your back on that, which would risk literally everything you have." 

Edward Mermelstein, a New York-based attorney who works with Russian business clients, told CNBC that Putin's popularity is no longer dependent on finance as much as the might of Russia. 

Related: Obama: If Putin Really Wanted Ukraine, He Would Take It

"As long as the country is perceived as strong, he will continue to dominate domestically. The Russian citizen can withstand famine, but they cannot withstand the appearance of weakness," he said.

While some companies are getting hit hard by what Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov has acknowledged is an economy in "dire straits," others are finding ways to benefit. A source who franchises U.S. brands and companies and brings them into Russia, and who spoke with CNBC on the condition of anonymity, said his colleagues have already identified specific companies they are looking to take over.

Others echoed that view, saying it's actually going to be a good way for some oligarchs to build their wealth and influence. "The explorers and drillers will get hit the hardest," said the franchising source. "The downturn is real."

This article originally appeared in CNBC.

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