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Vladimir Potanin, How The Mega-Rich Russian Oligarch Defies Western Sanctions

French daily Les Echos profiles Vladimir Potanin, Russia's incarnation of a never-turn-back oligarch. The owner of Nornickel, Russia's leading company in the metals and mining industry, Potanin continues to grow his business despite Western sanctions. He recently took over French bank Société Générale's Russian subsidiary — with the Kremlin's approval, of course.

Vladimir Potanin plays chess with Ian Nepomniachtchi

Potanin meets Russian chess grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi for a friendly chess game on Dec. 24, 2021.

Benjamin Quenelle

“Me an oligarch? No… On the other hand, Vladimir Potanin — with his politics and business — is the true incarnation of an oligarch!”

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Among Russia's top 10 billionaires, relationships have always been riddled with fratricidal wars involving millions of dollars and petty phrases.

Since the beginning of the so-called “special military operation” in February, which is how the Kremlin defines its military invasion of Ukraine, these rivalries have been exacerbated.

And Vladimir Potanin, the second richest man in Russia with a fortune of over $17 billion according to Forbes, arouses a lot of jealousy.

A different status 

The now infamous oligarchs appeared amid the chaos of the 1990s, with the end of communism.

They purchased dying public companies at a very low price. They funded the state, in ruins at the time, ensuring the survival of President Boris Yeltsin, and took the opportunity to enrich themselves as the country was sinking into poverty.

Under Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, and from 2000 onwards, they were quickly put back in line, subjected to the new rules of power.

But Potanin had a different status.

“The only real oligarch in Russia is Vladimir Potanin. He built his fortune in the beginning thanks to his political ties which remain strong today”, says the same source while smiling — a Russian billionaire that downplays the connections with the Kremlin as well as the complicated relationship between oligarchs and the political power.

Nornickel in Norilsk

Vladimir Potanin is the president and board chairman of Nornickel.

Denis Kozhevnikov/TASS

Rising as the USSR crumbles

The success of Potanin, a graduate of Mgimo, the institute of political science for diplomatic elites, dates back to the 1990s. That's when the former member of the Communist Party and civil servant at the Ministry of Foreign Trade took advantage of the fall of the USSR to start a business.

First he was a consultant to foreign investments and then in the privatization of hydrocarbons and other natural resources. Thirty years later, he is now profiting from soaring commodity prices thanks to Nornickel (formerly Norilsk Nickel), the metals giant which he acquired during the major privatizations of the 1990s.

The only real oligarch in Russia is Vladimir Potanin.

Potanin was one of the architects of the "loans against shares" program. He received shares in the oil company Sidanco but also some in Norilsk Nickel, which marked the beginning of his fortune.

Well-connected bankers, and people around them, lent $1.8 billion to the declining Kremlin in exchange for shares in the jewels of the Soviet industry as collateral. They all knew that the loans would never be repaid. This is how Potanin acquired 38% of Norilsk Nickel for only $170 million, while the group declared revenues of $3.3 billion.

Kremlin loyalty

Boris Yeltsin then appointed him as deputy prime minister in 1996, but the businessman only stayed in the government for seven months.

His skills in politics and business lasted longer: He sold 10% of Sidanco to BP for $571 million in 1997, while he had only paid the state $130 million for 51% of the company a year earlier — another great deal. A true oligarch, Potanin has been using his political connections and banking influence to acquire valuable assets at a low cost ever since the 1990s.

Loyal to the Kremlin, the oligarch is careful not to get involved in politics and refrains from even talking about it. He hardly makes any allusions to geopolitical tensions.

“Western sanctions are bad not only for Russia but also for those who adopted them. As so often in our history, external pressures that feel unjust have only served to strengthen the unity of the country internally. Hence the patriotism that is building around Vladimir Putin. I feel patriotic but open to criticism of our country,” said Potanin in a rare interview.

That was in 2017, the last interview he gave to French daily Les Echos. His words are still relevant in 2022. Five years ago, he did not hide his discomfort towards the press, he even joked about it, “usually I drink mostly tea. But when I meet a journalist, I tend to drink coffee…”

Potanin and Putin

Vladimir Potanin and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in 2014.

Mikhail Klimentyev/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS

Banking ambitions

At Interros today, the mood calls for champagne. The latest trick of the business mogul: His holding Interros bought Rosbank from French bank Société Générale.

An "orderly and responsible" exit, according to Frédéric Oudéa, the boss of the French group, who, on the morning of February 24, when Russia launched its "special operation", decided to let go of his Russian subsidiary.

Oudéa and Potanin have known each other since the first French investment in the capital of Rosbank in 2006.

In recent weeks, they exchanged messages in English even if the billionaire speaks French. A usual visitor of the Côte d'Azur city of Antibes during the summer, Potanin was given the Legion of Honor in 2017 after donating 250 works of Russian modern art to France's Pompidou Center.

The French group Société Générale ended up with a heavy bill (more than $4 billion swallowed up to take control of Rosbank, zero dividends and $3 billion in losses), quite a win for Potanin in acquiring the first foreign bank of Russia.

Observers now wonder whether he will become the new oligarch of banks — which is painful for some, but a promising prospect for others. "It's an art what Potanin has done! Société Générale lost millions of dollars when they left — millions Potanin earned," smiles a Russian banker.

Full attention on high-tech

Potanin is said to have broader banking ambitions, especially after taking over the shares of Oleg Tinkov — the iconoclastic FinTech leader opposed to the “crazy war” in Ukraine — in Tinkoff bank, which is now expected to abandon the name of its founder.

But this private sector in turmoil calls for a takeover, with many suitors from Alfa-Bank to Promsvyazbank to the high-tech group Yandex and even the investment fund AFK Sistema. As a result Potanin's sudden rise to success as a banker looks like a carefully staged scenario.

"We had made a counter-proposal for the takeover of Rosbank. But we soon realized that everything had already been sealed with Potanin”, confides a businessman in Moscow.

In his only interview this year, given to the Russian agency Interfax, Potanin certainly denied any greater banking ambitions: no new takeovers, no plans for a Rosbank-Tinkoff merger. "We are not planning any further acquisitions in the sector," he said.

He says his full attention is turned above all on Russian high-tech companies. By taking advantage of the Western players’ departure, Interros has just acquired a stake in Reksosft, one of the leading national software developers. Other acquisitions are likely to follow as Interros has created a billion-dollar fund dedicated to high-tech projects.

Pal to Putin 

In Norilsk, a northern city 217 miles (350 kilometers) above the Arctic Circle, the snow does not melt until until July. Surrounded by mineral mines, the inhabitants have inhaled for the longest time a rotten atmosphere with sulfur dioxide from the nickel and copper factories.

Around the mines, the tundra and the sky have now regained their natural colors. Potanin plans to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 45% by 2023 compared to the 2015 levels. A $3.5 billion project using state-of-the-art technology.

But global warming has finally caught up with Potanin. All of Norilsk is built on stilts to protect buildings and factories from permafrost and where the ground is perpetually frozen.

After the collapse of a thermal power plant tank in June 2020, there was a leakage of 20,000 tons of hydrocarbons, an accident that was caused due to the melting ice.

It is one of the largest fuel spills in the history of the Arctic according to Greenpeace.

Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency, and then called the oligarch.

A loyal man, Potanin has paid a record 146 billion rubles (nearly $2 billion) in compensation for environmental damage. A page has now been turned between the two Vladimirs. Potanin knows how to perfectly manoeuvre in Putin's Russia.

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Close up photograph of a opy of The Independent features Rupert Murdoch striking a pensive countenance as his 'News of the World' tabloid newspaper announced its last edition will run

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