UK lifts sanctions on exiled Russian banker Tinkov

UK lifts sanctions on exiled Russian banker Tinkov
After Tinkov published a sharp foul-mouthed critique of the "insane war" in Ukraine on his social media, Tinkov was forced to sell Tinkoff Bank to Russian oligarch Vladimir Potanin. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews July 20, 2023

The UK government has lifted sanctions on exiled Russian banker Oleg Tinkov, on July 20 announcing that it “made 1 revocation [de-listing] under the Russia sanctions regime” by excluding Tinkov’s entry from the sanctions list. This makes this a rare case of sanctions being lifted following the subject's criticism of Russia's full-scale military invasion of Ukraine.

The lifting of the sanctions on Tinkov came on the same day as the US Department of Treasury hit Tinkoff bank, the only Russia’s purely online bank he founded and was eventually squeezed out of, with full blocking sanctions.

The bad, the good, and the ugly

Most notably, Tinkov being cleared of sanctions could pave the way for separating Russia’s richest into “good” and “bad” oligarchs by the West. 

As reported by bne IntelliNews, Russia’s former richest man and exiled businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the Anti-Corruption Foundation of jailed opposition activist Alexey Navalny had previously called for sanctions to be lifted on Tinkov.

“I believe the decision to impose sanctions on him was wrong,” Khodorkovsky said in an interview to Bloomberg in March 2023, citing Tinkov’s repeated criticism of Vladimir Putin’s government. “Lifting sanctions should be very clearly linked to public disengagement from this regime and its aggressive war,” he added.

Most recent reports suggested that the billionaire head of Virgin Richard Branson also vouched for Tinkov’s removal from the sanctions list. 

To remind, previously the former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul proposed to give Russian billionaires the benefit of the doubt and reserve an opportunity to withdraw from international sanctions lists by condemning the full-scale military invasion of Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin personally, donate half their fortune to the Ukraine Recovery Fund and give up investing in Russia. 

Tinkov, a controversial figure

As covered in detail by bne IntelliNews, Tinkov was one of the prominent oligarchs and businessmen sanctioned by the UK, and lost his billionaire status after his fortune plummeted by more than $5bn in a month. His TCS Group, a former investor darling that operated Russia's only pure online bank Tinkoff, was listed on the London Stock Exchange, with a capitalisation topping $20bn in 2021.

After Tinkov published a sharp foul-mouthed critique of the "insane war" in Ukraine on his social media, Tinkoff Bank immediately distanced itself from its founder and Tinkov was forced to sell the banking group to Russian oligarch Vladimir Potanin.

The terms of the deal with Potanin have not been formally disclosed, but Tinkov said in a New York Times interview that he had sold his stake in Tinkoff Bank “for kopecks”.  In response, Potanin told Russian Forbes that the volume of the deal was in the “hundreds of millions of dollars” and could in no way be considered “chump change”.

As part of Tinkov’s exit from the bank that bears his name, he also got into an ugly public fight with Oliver Hughes, a British national and former well respected CEO of Tinkoff Bank, who publicly rebuffed “libellous” comments made by Tinkov, accusing him of continuing to manage the bank in secret despite the sanctions. Hughes left Russia and the bank in April and now lives in Dubai.

Tinkov is a controversial figure in Russia. He is known for his oftentimes harsh statements and frequent scandals – from suing bloggers who criticised him, to having a nuanced view of the annexation of Crimea, and publicly insulting an employee of his bank, whom he called a “dummy” and a “free drive-thru”.

Tinkov’s support for the annexation of Crimea didn’t stop him from becoming one of the few Russian oligarchs to speak out against the war in Ukraine. He even renounced his Russian citizenship, a move which he announced on social media in the autumn of 2022.

Tinkov is now involved with the launch of an international financial startup in Mexico, banking sources  told bne IntelliNews in March 2023.

Who's next?

Other Russian billionaires that “deserve” sanction relief according to Russian opposition campaigners are Mikhail Fridman, Peter Aven and German Khan, the shareholders of Alfa Group. Their Alfa Bank has been hit by fresh EU sanctions on the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, on top of the personal sanctions already in place by the EU and UK.

On the same day that the UK lifted sanctions on Tinkov, the Guardian reported that Eugene Shvidler, a longtime ally of the billionaire Roman Abramovich and a UK citizen, has accused the UK government of “oppressive treatment” and launched a legal challenge to see his sanctions lifted as well.

“In a high court case that experts say could lead to a precedent for oligarchs seeking to free themselves of sanctions, lawyers for Shvidler, who is reportedly worth £1.3bn, are seeking to have his designation for sanctions declared unlawful and quashed, as well as pursuing restitution of his costs,” the Guardian wrote.

As followed by bne IntelliNews, in 2022 some 20 Russian billionaires threatenned to contest sanctions imposed on them by the EU following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

This includes the family members of metals and tech tycoon Alisher Usmanov, Dmitry Konov, the former CEO of petrochemicals manufacturer Sibur, who is also appealing against the sanctions against him, industrialist and former EuroChem director Andrey Melnichenko, and others.