US Sanctions Against Russian Oligarchs Take Shape

The United States on Wednesday announced a comprehensive effort to identify and seize the assets of wealthy Russians who have supported the regime of Russian President Vladmir Putin, as part of its response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The new initiative, led by the Justice Department, is called Operation KleptoCapture and was hinted at by President Joe Biden on Tuesday in his State of the Union address.

“Tonight, I say to the Russian oligarchs and the corrupt leaders who bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime: No more,” Biden said. “The United States Department of Justice is assembling a dedicated task force to go after the crimes of the Russian oligarchs. We are joining with our European allies to find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets. We are coming for your ill-begotten gains.”

On Wednesday morning, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced the formation of the new task force, noting that its aim would be to enforce the punishing array of economic sanctions that have been levied against Russia since its invasion of Ukraine last week.

“The Justice Department will use all of its authorities to seize the assets of individuals and entities who violate these sanctions,” Garland said. “We will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to investigate, arrest and prosecute those whose criminal acts enable the Russian government to continue this unjust war. Let me be clear: If you violate our laws, we will hold you accountable.”

Familiar tools

Experts say the work of tracking and seizing the assets will rely on a combination of intelligence-gathering, data analysis and cooperation with international partners, which is common in criminal investigations.

“We’ve seen asset seizures in the past. We have seen yachts and apartments and stuff taken,” said Daniel P. Ahn, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former chief economist for the Department of State. “This is a difference of scale, rather than a difference of instrument.”

Ahn said that identifying the real owners of some assets will be a “sticky intelligence problem.” Assets owned by extremely wealthy individuals are often controlled by a complex web of shell companies and other entities that disguise what law enforcement officials refer to as the “beneficial owner.”

Yachts on the move

Since the countries of the European Union, the United Kingdom, the U.S. and other allies began leveling sanctions on Russian banks and wealthy supporters of Putin, mega yachts owned, or believed to be owned, by Russian oligarchs have been tracked leaving ports in countries that have joined in the sanctions.

Several have sailed to the Republic of Maldives, an island chain in the Indian Ocean that does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.

On Wednesday, the oligarch Roman Abramovich, who owns the highly successful London-based football club Chelsea, announced that he had put the club up for sale, in the process writing off some $2 billion in loans he has made to it. On Tuesday, a member of the British Parliament said in a speech to the House of Commons that Abramovich was also trying to sell off a number of luxury properties in London.

Unloading obvious assets

Experts say they believe the oligarchs may try to dispose of assets that can be most easily linked to them in the hope that their seizure will satisfy Western governments.

“If I’m a kleptocrat, and I don’t want them to get the bulk of my stuff, I’m going to throw away the stuff that everybody knows about, and then they’ll hopefully leave me alone,” Jim Richards, founder and principal of RegTech Consulting, told VOA.

Richards, who was the director of financial crimes risk management for Wells Fargo & Company for a dozen years, said Abramovich and other oligarchs will have been careful to have large amounts of wealth hidden in complex holdings that will be difficult or impossible for law enforcement agencies to detect.

“I mean, the last thing these guys want is for their girlfriends, their kids and themselves to all end up in some apartment in Moscow,” he said.

Aim of sanctions

As Western nations continue to pile sanctions on the Russian economy, their ultimate objective could be questioned.

Ahn said there are three aims when it comes to sanctions, which may or may not overlap. The first is to inflict economic damage on the target. The second is to deter or reverse specific behaviors. The third is to express disapproval of specific actions by the party being sanctioned and/or solidarity with a victim of those actions.

Ahn said that to the degree the sanctions imposed on Russia are aimed at doing economic damage, they have been a “qualified success” so far. Time will likely worsen the effects on the Russian economy. But when it comes to preventing or reversing Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the sanctions have plainly failed, at least so far.

The symbolic success of sanctions regimes is typically greater the more multilateral they are, Ahn said. On that score, the actions taken against Russia have been quite successful, doing significant reputational damage to Putin’s government.

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