Russian-Jewish billionaires vow to fight EU sanctions over Ukraine invasion

Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven, who co-founded investment firm, insist they have ‘no financial or political relationship’ to Putin or the Kremlin

Russian businessman, co-founder of Alfa-Group Mikhail Fridman attends a conference of the Israel Keren Hayesod foundation in Moscow, Russia, on September 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, Pool)
Russian businessman, co-founder of Alfa-Group Mikhail Fridman attends a conference of the Israel Keren Hayesod foundation in Moscow, Russia, on September 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, Pool)

MADRID — Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman, whose LetterOne investment firm owns Spain’s Dia supermarket chain, said Tuesday he would contest the “unfounded” EU sanctions targeting him over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In a joint statement, Fridman and Russian banker Petr Aven, a LetterOne co-founder, insisted they had “no financial or political relationship” with Russian President Vladimir Putin or the Kremlin.

The two said they “will contest the spurious and unfounded basis for the imposition of these sanctions — vigorously and through all means available to them — to reverse unwarranted and unnecessary damage to the livelihoods and prosperity” of their employees and business partners.

They did not say how they would go about contesting the EU sanctions.

Fridman, one of Russia’s richest men, resigned from the board of directors of Amsterdam-listed mobile network operator Veon, the company said Tuesday, following his inclusion in the EU’s sanctions blacklist of Putin’s allies.

Veon operates mobile networks in Ukraine and Russia, as well as Bangladesh, Kazakhstan and Pakistan.

Fridman holds a 47.9% stake in the company through LetterOne.

From left to right: Ekaterina Kosina, Petr Aven, Jessica Kraft, Robert Kraft, Sara Netanyahu, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mikhail Fridman, and Natan Sharansky on the red carpet at the Genesis Prize ceremony, on June 20, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)

In a statement late on Monday, Dia insisted it was not controlled by the Russian oligarch and would not be affected by his being blacklisted by the EU.

Dia said although it was 78% owned by LetterOne Investment Holdings SA (LIHS), “no individual shareholder controls the LIHS,” not Fridman nor Aven.

“Accordingly, the firm considers it is not affected in any way, either directly or indirectly (by the aforementioned individuals who do not control LIHS or, therefore, Dia), by the new package of sanctions.”

In a letter to his LetterOne employees, Fridman told staff that “war can never be the answer” and called for the “bloodshed” to end, the company told AFP on Sunday.

“This crisis will cost lives and damage two nations who have been brothers for hundreds of years,” he wrote.

The Moscow oligarchs

Born into a Jewish family in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv in 1964, Fridman studied in Moscow and went on to build a vast business empire encompassing everything from oil and gas to banking, telecoms and distribution.

Fridman is a frequent giver to Jewish and Israeli causes, including the Genesis Prize Group, which he co-founded, and the Russian Jewish Congress.

He is one of a number of Jewish oligarchs funding a memorial to the approximately 34,000 Jews killed at the Babyn Yar ravine in Kyiv during World War II. The memorial site was struck Tuesday in a Russian missile attack on a television tower in the heart of Kyiv that Ukrainian authorities said killed at least five people and knocked out some broadcasts.

Fridman divides his time between London and Moscow, and Forbes estimates his fortune at $15.5 billion.

Although he has cultivated strong ties to Putin’s administration, he has never become part of the president’s inner circle.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (right) shakes hands with Alfa Group Head, billionaire Mikhail Fridman during their meeting in the Gorki residence outside Moscow, December, 2013. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Dmitry Astakhov, Government Press Service)

He was one of the founders of Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest non-state bank, which is currently headed by Moscow-born Aven, 66, who is also Jewish.

According to Forbes, Aven worked at the foreign ministry in Moscow in 1989 and two years later became minister of foreign economic relations following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

He co-founded LetterOne with Fridman and four other partners in 2013, with Forbes listing his estimated wealth at $4.8 billion.

In this file photo from July 25, 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) applauds for Alfa Bank head Petr Aven after awarding him with the Order of Merit to the Fatherland during a ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow. (AP Photo/Alexander Nenenov, Pool)

LetterOne first bought into Dia in 2017, launching a hostile takeover bid two years later.

The Spanish chain, which operates nearly 6,000 supermarkets in Spain, Portugal, Argentina and Brazil, posted a turnover of 6.64 billion euros ($7.4 billion) last year, the group said on Tuesday, giving a net loss figure of 257.3 million euros.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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