A swath of politicians have taken donations from a Soviet Russia–born billionaire with ties to Vladimir Putin’s closest oligarch allies. Now, as American and global institutions and individuals move to disassociate from Russia as a show of solidarity with Ukraine, the donations from that billionaire are increasingly becoming a yardstick for how far Americans are willing to go to cut ties with Putin.
The billionaire is Len Blavatnik, a native of Soviet Ukraine who grew up in Moscow, who now has British citizenship and U.S. citizenship and runs in the American donor community. Blavatnik is famously secretive, but the roots of his fortune lay with Viktor Vekselberg, one of the wealthiest people in Russia, who has been sanctioned by the United States.
Blavatnik made his fortune by founding a business with Vekselberg. But unlike Vekselberg, Blavatnik has taken pains to keep his distance from from Vladimir Putin. While his business partner has curried the Kremlin’s favor, Blavatnik worked to stay at arm’s length, according to an extensive profile in the Financial Times. He has not been sanctioned by the U.S. and not been accused (unlike other oligarchs, some of whom have connections to Blavatnik) of having a “key role in advancing Russia’s malign activities.”
He has, however, played heavily in American politics. He has not been a consistent Republican or Democratic donor, instead boosting politicians who have strongly resisted Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” as well as those who have supported it. Recipients of his donations over the years have included Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Chuck Schumer, Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton, Mitch McConnell, Chris Van Hollen, and John McCain, among others. He gave $1 million to Donald Trump’s inauguration committee.
Last year, Blavatnik donated about $255,000 to groups supporting Kevin McCarthy’s reelection; $120,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; $15,000 to groups supporting Senator Tom Cotton; and about $15,800 to help Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer win reelection. Under a headline that read “Kremlin-Linked Billionaire, Netanyahu Friend Donated to Trump’s Private Legal Fund,” the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Blavatnik had donated to the personal legal defense fund to pay for Trump’s legal fees related to allegations of interference in the 2016 presidential election. Robert Mueller also looked into Blavatnik’s donations during his Russia investigation.
Publicly disassociating with entities and people tied to Russia is all the rage right now, as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine amid resistance inside the country and outrage from the international community. The U.S., while refraining from putting boots on the ground, has ratcheted up sanctions and encouraged the international community to punish Putin’s regime. Switzerland ended its long-standing neutrality stance and joined the EU in supporting sanctions on Russian assets. The New York Post has published a list of where oligarchs own property in the city. Russian diplomats have been expelled by the U.S., with the government citing security concerns.
But lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been quieter about donations from Blavatnik or other influential figures with ties to Russia. The congressional offices and committees Blavatnik donated to in 2021 either didn’t respond or declined to comment when reached by The New Republic about the donations (for instance, Chuck Schumer’s office said it had no comment).
Blavatnik would not be new to backlash from American institutions. There were outcries within the institutions after he donated to the Council on Foreign Relations. An alumnus of Harvard University called a donation there “appalling.” Lecturers and activists at Oxford University wrote a scorching letter in The Guardian headlined “Oxford University must stop selling its reputation to Vladimir Putin’s associates.” But those institutions have refrained from returning the donations. The Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington-based think tank, did return its donation amid an uproar there that forced the head of its Kleptocracy Initiative to step down.
Again, Blavatnik is not like some of the other Russian billionaires and oligarchs with ties to Putin who have been sanctioned by the U.S. as a retaliatory measure to the Ukraine crisis. Blavatnik even seems to eschew the oligarch moniker. The Financial Times profile said Blavatnik’s press team requires assurances that he won’t be called one as a precondition for an interview. (His team did not respond to an inquiry from The New Republic.) The checks he’s written are to some of the world’s most venerable institutions.
But in writing those checks, Blavatnik has supported politicians who have actively worked to undermine the American presidential election process, alongside others who have been sounding the alarm to protect it. Evidently, those donations, or the ties to oligarchs who are connected to Russia’s dictator, are too murky to spark outrage in the name of Ukraine.