Here’s How Vladimir Putin Could Secretly Be the Richest Man in the World

April 19, 2017, 4:48 PM UTC

They say money equals power, and Vladimir Putin has plenty of power of right now.

But how much money does he have?

He’s not telling.

Figuring out the Russian president’s net worth has long been the holy grail of spooks and hacks around the world. But the personal wealth of Putin—a former KGB agent—is nearly impossible to decipher, and is likely distributed across a secret web of company holdings, real estate, and other people’s accounts. In fact, at a time when his political motivations are under scrutiny across the world, the struggle to pin down Putin’s riches reveals something about the covert ways in which he wields his authority over Russia.

Here’s what we know.

The most often cited estimate comes from a former mid-level Kremlin adviser named Stanislav Belkovsky. In 2007, he claimed Putin had a fortune worth at least $40 billion—a figure that would put him in the top 10 of Forbes magazine’s ranking of billionaires.

(Forbes, the premier chronicler of the world’s wealthiest, doesn’t include Putin on its list of billionaires. In 2015, the magazine said it couldn’t verify enough assets.)

The Kremlin source based his estimate on Putin’s alleged stakes in several companies, mostly in the oil sector. He said the Russian president controlled 37% of the oil company Surgutneftegaz, 4.5% of natural gas company Gazprom, and had substantial holdings in a commodities trader called Gunvor.

“At least $40 billion,” Belkovsy told the Guardian at the time.“Maximum we cannot know. I suspect there are some businesses I know nothing about.”

The American government has linked Putin to Gunvor, too. “Putin has investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds,” the U.S. Treasury said in a statement in 2014 as it announced sanctions.

Gunvor—which reportedly made $93 billion in revenue in 2012—denies Putin has ever had any ownership in the company.

Later, in 2012, Belkovsky upped his estimate to $70 billion, based on new information from “confidential sources around the corporations,” according to an interview with nonprofit journalism outlet The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

That’d put Putin within striking distance of Bill Gates, who according to Bloomberg is the world’s richest man with an estimated net worth of $84 billion. One less credible critic says Putin’s real worth could be as high as $200 billion.

Putin certainly has the visible trappings of wealth. Among his alleged holdings is a palace on the Black Sea with a reported price tag of $1 billion.

It features “a magnificent columned facade reminiscent of the country palaces Russian tsars built in the 18th Century,” according to the BBC. It also allegedly includes a private theatre, a landing pad with bays for three helicopters, and accommodation for security guards.

The palace was personally built for Putin but paid for using a secret slush fund created by a group of Russian oligarchs, according to a self-exiled Russian businessman named Sergei Kolesnikov, who provided evidence of the alleged scheme to the BBC.

The alleged scheme suggests a system in which the Kremlin’s power grants Putin access not only to his country’s corporate wealth but also to the personal accounts of Russian’s richest oligarchs.

And if the rumors are true, the Black Sea manse isn’t Putin’s only palace. He enjoys 20 palaces, four yachts, 58 aircraft, and a collection of watches worth £400,000, according to a scandalous dossier drawn up by a former deputy prime minister in 2012.

“In a country where 20 million people can barely make ends meet, the luxurious life of the president is a brazen and cynical challenge to society from a high-handed potentate,” Boris Nemstov wrote in the document, according to the Telegraph.

Here’s the yacht “Graceful,” apparently belonging to Putin, docked in Sochi in 2015.

The Telegraph story also describes “a little-known three-storey residence near Saratov, on the Volga river south-east of Moscow, has German chandeliers and Italian furniture, and features a billiard room, a winter garden, a pool and sauna.”

Perhaps we’ll never know. Unlike Donald Trump, Putin has publicly downplayed his net worth. “It’s just chitchat, nonsense, nothing to discuss,” he has said, according to Bloomberg View columnist Leonid Bershidsky. “They picked it out of their noses and smeared it on their pieces of paper.”

But he does not deny a certain level of priceless holdings, according to New York Times reporter Steven Lee Myers’ book The New Tsar. “I am the wealthiest man not just in Europe but in the whole world: I collect emotions,” Putin has said. “I am wealthy in that the people of Russia have twice entrusted me with the leadership of a great nation such as Russia. I believe that is my greatest wealth.”

Simon Shuster contributed reporting.

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