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by John Helmer, Moscow 

In the US war for regime change in Russia, Christmas dinner for the oligarchs was President Vladimir Putin’s idea in 2014 for demonstrating that he was in command of their loyalty for a price the oligarchs were afraid to test. By 2019, the occasion had been turned into an afternoon tea ceremony in which the oligarchs confirmed for Putin the price he must pay if he isn’t to lose them to the other side.  

In 2014 there were 45 guests at the party. In 2017 the invitation list had swelled to 63; a year ago it was 60. As the years have gone by, and the US campaign for regime change escalated, the Kremlin has grown more reluctant to reveal who was invited, who was not.

Because the US Treasury and Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)  have rationalised their sanctions on individual Russian businessmen as aiming at those judged to be closest to Putin – to pit them against him —  the oligarchs and the President have agreed that when they raise their glasses at their annual toast for the New Year, they prefer their presence to remain a state secret.

This week the Kremlin spokesman was as coy as ever. “Wait for the announcement on the web site”, he said. Alexander Shokhin, president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP), the oligarchs’ lobby, acknowledged that time for this year’s party was running out, and that he himself “had not shown any initiative, and there had been no information coming from the Kremlin.” 

Putin has not been meeting face-to-face with groups of individuals for months now because of the Covid-19 precautions. This week he made two exceptions; the first for a visit to the National Defence Control Centre where he gave a speech on military priorities to the  Defense Ministry Board;  the second for a visit and speech at the headquarters of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), in celebration of the agency’s 100th anniversary.

The military and the intelligence services have been far more hostile to the oligarchs than Putin himself. The US Treasury has discreetly acknowledged this. Of the Treasury’s 96 “list of oligarchs” first reported to the US Congress on January 30, 2018, only 11 have been sanctioned to date. Another 3 are under Russian indictment for bank fraud and are on the run in Cyprus  or the UK.  One has been charged with cheating the US Internal Revenue Service and is fighting extradition to the US from his home in London


Follow the Christmas dinners past-- 2019:  2018: 2017: 2016: 2015:  2014.

For Christmas dinner this year, you too can count on being visited by the ghosts of the past and  present; also the ghost of what is yet to come. How improbable that sounds — improbabilities aren’t quite falsehoods; they aren’t facts either. But counting on improbabilities is wishful thinking – and that’s what the story of regime change in Russia is.

It’s a story we will return to after Russian New Year, investigating and reporting the proofs of  what cannot have happened,  as well as the proofs of what will happen next.

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