(CNN) — Sanctions hit Russian President Vladimir Putin dangerously close to home in May, when the UK froze assets belonging to his ex-wife and her rumored lover along with others in her circle as part of efforts to make Moscow pay for the war in Ukraine.
It was the latest in a series of extraordinary measures taken by the West to punish Moscow for its bloody invasion of Ukraine. And it came a few days after several countries, including Australia, Canada and the United States, imposed sanctions on the assets of the two adult daughters of Putin.
Stripping the oligarchs of their ill-gotten assets has proven to be a fruitful task: since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, the US Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on more than 530 wealthy and well-connected Russians.
From yachts to mansions to high-end works of art – much of it directly linked to the Kremlin’s illicit wealth – the total value of seized Russian assets has risen by thousands of millions dollars as the West tries to squeeze Putin over the bloody invasion, now in its fourth month.
However, while Russian asset seizures have grabbed the headlines, they do not appear to have stopped Moscow’s bloody and troublesome raid so far. Nor have they stopped the mounting death toll or helped rebuild a single Ukrainian school or hospital reduced to rubble by Russian bombing. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky estimates that some $600 billion will be needed to rebuild his country.
Americans are beginning to learn that the current measures to try to benefit Ukraine could take years, so innovative ideas to help Russia’s war-torn neighbor will not be ruled out.
Is there anything else the West can do with confiscated Russian assets to help the Ukrainian cause? Can this frozen wealth really be used to help Ukraine fend off the Russian imperialists who dirty their country?
I, along with many others against kleptocracy, think so. Furthermore, the US administration thinks so too. Washington believes it has found a way not only to keep the confiscated assets out of Russia’s hands, but to use them proactively in the fight against the Putin regime.
In April, in a near unanimous vote, the US House of Representatives passed a pbipartisan bill in which President Joe Biden is asked to oversee the sale of a wide range of frozen luxury assets linked to sanctioned Russian oligarchs. The US Senate is debating a companion bill that would allow the US to use seized assets “for the benefit of the people of Ukraine.”
“It is hard to imagine Russia’s wealth being returned to Putin while Ukraine lies in ruin and Ukrainians are burying their dead,” said Democratic Representative Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, who sponsored the bill along with Republican Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina.
“In these extraordinary circumstances, the international community should be prepared to use Russia’s frozen assets to rebuild the country that Russia is destroying,” Malinowski said.
House bill calls on Biden to “seize” assets worth more than US$ 2,000 million belonging to entities and sanctioned people linked to Putin. The measure also urges the White House to create an “inter-agency working group” led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to establish “constitutional mechanisms” to convert frozen assets into capital for Ukrainians.
The move is “virtually unprecedented,” wrote The New York Times, not least because of how much it would expand presidential powers over sanctions. And although the law is not binding, represents an important step forward as it establishes a framework for using Russian assets seized in Ukraine.
In a opinion column, Harvard Constitutional Law Professor Laurence Tribe and his co-author Jeremy Lewin highlighted the advantages of leveraging Russia’s capital assets for the project of arming and rebuilding Ukraine. They rightly pointed out that it would be “the fastest way to increase US aid to Ukraine without further overburdening and fatiguing US taxpayers.”
Tribe and Levin also noted in their article for The New York Times that tapping into Russian funds “would send a powerful signal that the United States is committed to making even the world’s most powerful states pay for their war crimes.”
The idea has garnered international backing: In May, the finance ministers of Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Estonia insisted that Russia foot the bill for rebuilding Ukraine.
Others legislative measures in Congress are redoubling efforts to make Russia pay for invading Ukraine, including a bill introduced by Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, and Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan, that would ensure Ukrainians can claim monetary damages through from US courts for any losses suffered as a result of the Russian invasion, paid by assets seized from Russia or Russian oligarchs that the US government has sanctioned.
For its part, the White House issued a release in which he endorses legislation introduced by Wilson and Malinowski and calls for even broader powers to seize oligarchic assets for use in the broader fight against the Kremlin. The White House proposals would not only accelerate US efforts to sell the assets and use the proceeds to fund Ukraine’s fight for independence.
It would also expand the ability to go after Russian assets more broadly, including extending the statute of limitations on related crimes and broadening the definition of blackmail to include things like sanctions evasion. With these broader powers, the Biden administration would be empowered to seize “oligarchic assets” that would “allow profits to flow to Ukraine,” according to the White House statement.
However, opponents have raised concerns about the sweeping and unprecedented nature of the measures being considered. A first version of the project A House bill would have authorized the White House to transform seized assets into resources for Ukraine, but some rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) objected.
The ACLU and other groups have expressed his concern that US courts could declare the president’s expanded powers unconstitutional, a legal decision that would give Russia a public relations victory and allow Moscow to mock what would be portrayed as Washington’s ineptitude in steering the process of international sanctions.
Others have raised similar concerns. Seizing Russian assets for use by Ukraine is “a completely noble goal, but it doesn’t take much to extend this precedent in a way that we don’t feel comfortable with,” explained to The Washington Post Richard Nephew, a researcher at Columbia University.
And there are even voices within the administration that oppose the idea of seizing the assets of the Central Bank of Russia for Ukraine to use. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in Europe in May that she believed doing so would violate US law.
“I think it’s very natural, given the massive destruction in Ukraine and the huge reconstruction costs they will face, that we look to Russia to help us pay at least part of the price that it will bring.” said Yellen to reporters in Bonn, Germany, adding, however, that “it’s not something that’s legally allowed in the United States.”
Amid the protests, the House bill was amended to address concerns about the broad scope of the original legislation. An interagency working group will now simply be created to look at how best to get around these constitutional concerns, and proceed from there.
Concern about expanding presidential powers is not entirely without merit, given the crecent executive authorityand recent history showing How can those powers be abused? It’s also important to note that those expanded powers will still be in place after the next presidential election in 2024, when there could be a different occupant in the Oval Office.
But these are unprecedented times. It should be clear by now that using the funds for the defense and reconstruction of Ukraine is much more productive than simply freezing them.
The White House already has the authority and the preceding to seize Russia’s liquid assets and should proceed without delay to deprive Moscow of its supposed savings. As part of the process, you should convene the best minds available during the next working group to ensure all due process concerns are properly addressed.
At this point, one thing is clear: Russia’s disastrous turn calls for solutions outside the current playbook. And using seized Russian assets to back Ukraine only makes sense, not just to deter Moscow, but to deter any misbehaving regime that might be tempted to follow in the destructive and ruinous footsteps of the Kremlin.