Is he grasping for rubles or emotions? Photographer: Jock Fistick/Bloomberg
Is he grasping for rubles or emotions? Photographer: Jock Fistick/Bloomberg

If you've ever wondered about the size of Russian President Vladimir Putin's private fortune, allow me to offer a clue: He doesn’t need one.

From time to time, Western journalists and bloggers speculate about whether Putin is one of the world's richest men or just its wealthiest political leader. Look up "Putin's personal fortune" on Google, and you'll find estimates of between $40 billion and $70 billion.

The media reports, which often cite one another, ultimately tend to rely on one primary source: a November 2007 interview given by a prominent member of Moscow's chattering classes, Stanislav Belkovsky, to the German daily Die Welt. In the interview, he claimed that Putin "controlled" 37 percent of the oil company Surgutneftegaz and 4.5 percent of natural gas monopoly Gazprom. The $40 billion estimate of Putin's fortune was simply the 2007 market price of these stakes.

"And these numbers are substantiated?" Die Welt journalist Manfred Quiring asked. "These numbers are correct," Belkovsky replied, and that was that.

Interviewers regularly ask Belkovsky about the $40 billion number. "That figure could now have changed, I believe at the level of $60-70 billion," Belkovsky told Maeve McClenaghan of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

There has never been the slightest bit of evidence that Putin actually owns stakes in Surgutneftegaz or Gazprom. The Western journalists using Belkovsky as a source either do not know who he is or print his allegations simply because they are colorful. "What game Mr. Belkovsky is playing -- and on whose behalf -- is unclear," the Telegraph of London warned in a story copiously citing Belkovsky's allegations.

Belkovsky's game may be mainly literary. A former computer programmer turned political consultant, he has written several books about Putin and a humorous play featuring Russian political figures. Belkovsky's charm, easygoing style and keen sense of the absurd have made him a popular columnist. Even when he suggests that Russia has become a constitutional monarchy headed by Michael of Kent or Prince Harry, people listen to him as though he is partly serious.

The late tycoon Boris Berezovsky once admitted to hiring Belkovsky, who is Jewish, to muster Russian nationalist forces against Putin. The project never came to fruition, possibly because many of the nationalists were raging anti-Semites.

Belkovsky's allegations reached Putin's ears when an Associated Press reporter asked him during a February 2008 press conference: "Some newspapers have reported that you are the wealthiest man in Europe. If that is so, what are the sources of your wealth?"

Putin flatly denied the reports. "It's just chitchat, nonsense, nothing to discuss," he said. "They picked it out of their noses and smeared it on their pieces of paper."

There was, however, some curious substance to the rest of Putin's reply. "I am the wealthiest man not just in Europe but in the whole world. I collect emotions, 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."

This may sound like so much hot air. In fact, Putin's power is his wealth in more ways than one.

Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was first deputy prime minister under Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, published a report last year entitled "Putin. Corruption." Using information from open sources, mainly newspaper reports, the report describes how Putin's relatives and friends got rich during his rule. It also attempts to pull together bits of information about Putin's perks as head of state, including luxury yachts and stately residences. An entire chapter is devoted to Putin's collection of expensive Swiss watches, which he could not have acquired on his official salary of less than $200,000 a year.

Nemtsov's report, now as much a source for stories about Putin's wealth as Belkovsky's claims, does not discuss the Russian president's personal fortune or whether he even has one. As a former top government official, Nemtsov knows that in Russia, the national leader does not need money or assets as such. He has the whole country at his beck and call. It is enough for Putin to snap his fingers, and state-owned companies will cede assets to his friends at bargain-basement prices. A whisper from him, and wealthy private businessmen will chip in for the lavish refurbishment of a presidential residence.

Is that, however, a secure setup that will last once Putin gives up power? In 2008, with Putin forced to give up the presidency after he had served two terms, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote in a diplomatic cable that, according to a Russian opposition source, Putin was "nervously seeking to secure his future immunity from potential law enforcement investigations into his alleged illicit proceeds." That nervousness, according to the cable, translated into the choice of weak, mild Dmitri Medvedev as Putin's successor.

It has since turned out that Putin was not intending to give up power at all. His third presidential term runs out in 2018, and he will be eligible for another one after that if he feels up to it at age 65. He has plenty of time to convert his vast power and the favors he has done his friends and family into actual cash and assets. At this point, it is simply unnecessary. The country's "capitalists" are merely holding and exploiting property on behalf of the state -- meaning, ultimately, on behalf of Putin, the collector of votes and emotions.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor. Follow him on Twitter.)