By Asaf Shalev
(JTA) – Jewish communities in Ukraine received a $10 million gift from a perhaps unlikely source Monday: a charitable organization founded by three Russian Jewish oligarchs who are being accused of having supported the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The donation is small for the three billionaires behind Genesis Philanthropy Group — Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan — who are together worth $21 billion. But it is significant in part because it signals daylight between them and Putin, who on Thursday invaded Ukraine and plunged the region into crisis.
The gift is also significant because it comes as the West determines whether and how to penalize Putin’s allies by targeting their wealth. A day after the gift’s announcement, the European Union added Fridman, Aven and several other Russian businessmen to its sanctions blacklist as part of its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“With these additional sanctions, we are targeting all who are having a significant economic role in supporting Putin’s regime, and benefit financially from the system,” EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell said in a statement. “These sanctions will expose the wealth of Putin’s elite. Those who enable the invasion of Ukraine will pay a price for their action.”
The billionaires who could face sanctions include a number of prominent Jewish philanthropists, whose giving is vital to the organizations they support but may get ensnared by financial sanctions as the West seeks to isolate Putin and his supporters.
Fridman and Aven, as well as Khan, appear among 210 names of prominent Russians on a list of possible targets for sanctions that was released by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2018.
Dubbed “Putin’s list,” the names represent top political figures and so-called oligarchs who have amassed wealth and influence under Putin’s administration of the Kremlin. They are seen as potential targets for sanctions that would prevent them from participating in global commerce, in hopes of pressuring Putin to end the invasion of Ukraine.
At least 18 of the figures on “Putin’s list” are oligarchs with Jewish backgrounds, many of whom, as with the men behind the Genesis Philanthropy Group, have ramped up donations to Jewish charities around the world in recent years. Their giving has shaped efforts to commemorate the Holocaust, inculcate Jewish identity and fight antisemitism. Many have also given to Chabad, the Hasidic Jewish outreach movement, in Russia, and to Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.
In addition to simply allowing people with wealth to assert their values and strengthen the organizations they favor, philanthropy can be understood as a form of “cultural diplomacy” when practiced by people close to leaders like Putin. It can also be useful in enhancing the reputation of people who accumulated wealth in an environment plagued by corruption.
Overall, charitable giving has risen substantially among wealthy Russians in recent years. And with the coming of age of a generation of Jews who were raised in the former Soviet Union, some who have made fortunes are starting to give back to their communities, and becoming an important force in Jewish philanthropy in recent years, according to Andres Spokoiny, CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.
“There’s also a trend among Russian-speaking Jewry of rediscovering a sense of Jewish identity that was denied to them when they were growing up and feeling a commitment towards it,” Spokoiny said.
Possibly the best-known Russian Jewish oligarch is Roman Abramovich, who made his billions in oil, steel and mining following the breakup of state-owned businesses after the fall of the Soviet Union. The owner of the elite Chelsea Football Club in England’s Premier League, he has reportedly donated more than $500 million to Jewish nonprofits in Israel and around the world. $100 million of that sum has gone to the Ir David Foundation, also known as Elad, an Israeli group working to bolster Jewish settlement in a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
Abramovich stepped back from Chelsea this week in anticipation of sanctions. But so far, Western sanctions have been concentrated on Putin himself, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian financial institutions. These add to sanctions on a limited number of Putin cronies imposed in 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and in 2016 amid revelations of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election.
The potential for new sanctions targeting oligarchs brings attention to the flow of money from Russia’s Jewish billionaires to Jewish nonprofits.
The $10-million donation announced by Genesis Philanthropy Group is going to support the Jewish Agency for Israel, Joint Distribution Committee, Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, and regional and local Jewish community organizations to pay for evacuation and security efforts, food distribution and relief for elderly homes and orphanages.
During normal times Genesis also gives to mainstay Jewish causes like Hillel, Moishe House, Birthright and Limmud, according to its website. The organization is perhaps best known for establishing the Genesis Prize, an annual $1 million award, dubbed “the Jewish Nobel,” given to prominent Jewish figures.
Asked by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency to comment on how the threat of sanctions is affecting the decisions being made by Genesis Philanthropy Group, the organization’s CEO Marina Yudborovsky released a statement: “Genesis Philanthropy Group has a long history of making independent grants and this follows that tradition. Our work is needed now more than ever, and we will continue to support Jewish communities around the world.”
On Sunday, Fridman, Genesis co-founder and trustee and one of Russia’s richest people, became the first Russian oligarch to speak out against the war, calling it a “tragedy,” according to the Financial Times. In a letter he reportedly wrote to employees of his London-based private equity firm, he said he was “convinced … war can never be the answer.”
Fridman is the controlling owner of Alfa-Bank, a major Russian financial institution that the United States and European Union last week placed under sanctions, limiting its ability to operate internationally.
Fridman’s statement was followed by a similar one from a second Jewish oligarch, Oleg Deripaska. “Peace is very important! Negotiations must begin as soon as possible!” Deripaska, an outspoken Putin supporter who has been under U.S. sanctions, wrote on Telegram, according to the Financial Times.
Two other Jewish oligarchs with ties to Putin, Igor and Boris Rotenberg, became ensnared in sanctions announced by the United Kingdom last week.
Meanwhile, Abramovich, who’s been considered among the most likely targets for new sanctions, is reportedly aiding in the negotiations underway between Ukraine and Russia.
He has also made headlines over his charitable giving.
Last week, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust authority, announced a donation from Abramovich, said to be in the eight figures. It will pay for a new building and a book inscribed with the 4.8 million names of Holocaust victims known to the museum. An Israeli news channel revealed that weeks earlier, before the fighting erupted in Ukraine, Yad Vashem had lobbied the United States against sanctioning Abramovich in light of his “contribution to the Jewish people.”
Abramovich has long denied that he is an ally of Putin, and his representatives told The Guardian newspaper last week that “it would be ludicrous to suggest that our client has any responsibility or influence over the behavior of the Russian state.”
Current sanctions appear not to have deterred Putin as yet, making it likely that the West will seek to go further in pressuring the Russian president however it can. That leaves uncertainty for the recipients of the largesse of Russia’s Jewish billionaires.
Spokoiny, of the Jewish Funders Network, is optimistic.
“I don’t see a problem yet,” Spokoiny said. “I hope that the important work that people are doing in Jewish communities is not affected by the sanctions.”
Caleb Guedes-Reed contributed research to this story.