More than nukes, carriers, boots on the ground or Nato, the most efficacious deterrent against Putinism worldwide is curbing the free flow of kleptocratic money. Finally, in both the US and UK – the preferred destination of said monies – there’s a serious practical move afoot to do just that, however belatedly. It took Moscow’s imminent threat of invading Ukraine to get us here. Let us focus in this column on the US initiatives. The Republicans and Democrats have introduced each their own separate bills and are now negotiating to combine the two. Some sticking points remain and they’re crucial. But first some context.
This column has dwelt multiple times in the past on the dangerous corrupting effect on Western institutions by Kremligarchs’ and other oligarchs’ financial inroads into our system. Wall Street, real estate in New York and Miami, big legal firms, Big Oil, Big Accountancy, big banks, Washington lobbiers, all benefit hugely from Russian dark money swilling around. Moscow has spent some $182 million on influencing the US since 2016 according to this report, and that’s only what’s openly declared under the FARA act. Ultimately it gets into the arteries of our political process too. As a result we end up corrupting ourselves. The US economy is big enough to withstand its exclusion but it takes a huge effort of will to push past resistance from special interests at home and abroad, especially when our allies are already paralyzed by it. Exhibit A: Germany, whose top retired politicians have a penchant for sitting on boards of giant Russian oil conglomerates.
To grasp the scope of what’s at stake, we need first to understand the global scale of the threat to Western security. Putin didn’t merely set up a patronage model to benefit his own political loyalists, he created an alternate system for authoritarians worldwide to emulate. We are looking at the present-day equivalent to the Warsaw Pact – not so explicit and treaty-bound but just as real. Any tinpot strongman wishing to move his country from a transparent and pluralist democracy to President-for-life autocracy follows the Putin model. What’s more, to reward their own cronies, they exploit the global dark money network established by the Kremlin. Thus, however opposed to Russian strategic domination each strongman might be, they are all inevitably dependent on Moscow financially for their power to some extent, because the dark money network is backed up by Russian oil petrodollars. Hence Erdogan’s flirtation with Putin. And now Orban. In effect, the Kremlin exercises leverage on various hierarchies abroad equal to the pressure from their own population. Sometimes it herniates as in Kazakhstan.
The last column in this series was devoted to the huge opportunities Putin gifted the West by spurring the Ukraine crisis. Foremost among them looks to be the anti-kleptocrat sanctions bill(s) now wending its way through Congress. This makes it much easier for journalists like me to report on such things because Congress has immunity from lawsuits and we can with impunity quote what they say. Otherwise, we toil under the shadow of ‘lawfare’ punishment such as is happening with some frequency in the UK. That is, the habit of oligarchs to sue books and publications over content they don’t like. Even when they don’t sue each time, they don’t need to: a chilling effect operates on publishing everywhere. So, over in the UK too they have resorted to statements in parliament to avoid libel lawsuits. This is the gift that the Republican draft bill has given us in the US by specifying certain names as deserving sanctions. We can now name them too. The bill itself is quite long for our purposes so it’s best to outline the gist of it and how it differs from the Dems bill and the principles under negotiation.
Essentially, the Republican draft entitled ‘The Putin Accountability Act‘ directs the President to impose sanctions within defined time periods on named individuals and companies. It does so under the Magnitsky act and various executive orders relating to the situation in Ukraine. Sanctions include asset freezing, ending Stateside business activities, denying access to Western banks, revoking visas and the like. The Republicans are pushing to get this done even before any further hostilities by Moscow. The Democrats would rather suspend punishment until Putin’s next steps in order to give him incentives to hold back. With that in mind, they’ve refrained from naming names. The GOP wants transparency and information to be declassified on its targets now, whereas that’s a weapon the Dems would rather wield as a threat than unleash upfront. A lot of the individuals are political figures, cabinet members, office holders and heads of large corporations. Chief of police. A top judge. Predictable types. Surprising and even more interesting are the more ‘civilian’ oligarchs, those who’ve managed to deploy their power and money abroad without the taint of being Kremlin cut-outs.
Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea football club, who sued the author Catherine Belton for her book ‘Putin’s People’ for alleging that he acted under Putin’s directions. The lawsuit was recently settled when his side was allowed to put its response into her text. Now the Republican draft bill proposes him as sanctions-worthy presumably for just such reasons. There’s Oleg Deripaska: he got sanctioned by the Treasury in 2018 for meddling in US affairs and had to sell off his majority shareholding in his big companies – a soft outcome, considering various buyers could be stand-ins for him. This new development nails him squarely, one might think. Ultra-interesting is the inclusion of Dmitry Ryboloviev worth $6.6 billion, who famously purchased Donald Trump’s property in Florida for an extra $50 million. Ryboloviev owns the Monaco soccer club and was arrested in Monaco over his dealings with their official hierarchy such as the chief of police and the justice minister. Clearly, though, the GOP draft-bill considers his activities to be more Kremlin-related or he wouldn’t be mentioned. In that regard it’s worth noting that he sued Yves Bouvier in vain across several jurisdictions claiming Bouvier overcharged him for art deals. Yves Bouvier had sold him fine art for years. Bouvier has argued that Rybo’s lawsuits had a deeper purpose.
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Yves Bouvier is the brains behind Freeports in Geneva, Singapore etc. and according to his various assertions Ryboloviev’s real purpose was to capture the freeports and set up his own in Vladivostok. The GOP’s sanctions designation would imply that Ryboloviev wanted to do so for the Kremlin. It’s also interesting that for some years Rybo owned major potash companies in Belarus, that country’s main export, and thereby upheld autocrat Lukashenka’s economy. Sure enough also named is Mikhail Gutseriev, “who runs oil and potash businesses for the benefit of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka”, so the bill’s text goes. The GOP’s idea of a rogue’s gallery makes fascinating reading and readers should peruse the bill with relish before it gets watered down in compromise for getting past the White House.
The names might later change or be dropped or held in reserve pending Putin’s actions but they are now on the record indelibly. The business effects of being on that list even provisionally must be significantly deleterious. Any libel lawsuit initiated by any of the named must battle uphill against the ready reference to the list’s implication that they’re Putin’s agents. (Equally, those who take their money, from lawyers to bankers, are potentially tarred with the same brush by proxy.) The effect, above all, is a benefit to free speech as it gives us journalists a freer hand to write columns like this.