US prepares to expand financial attack on Russian oligarchs, aiming to seize billions held by Putin allies
The Washington Post March 2, 2022
WASHINGTON — Senior Biden administration officials are preparing to dramatically expand the number of Russian oligarchs subject to U.S. sanctions, aiming to punish the financial elite close to President Vladimir Putin over his invasion of Ukraine, according to three people briefed on internal administration deliberations.
Officials at the White House and Treasury Department are working on producing a list of names that is expected to overlap in part with the lineup of Russian oligarchs who were newly subjected to sanctions by the European Union on Monday, the people said.
For instance, the White House is weighing imposing new sanctions on Alisher Usmanov, the owner of an iron and steel conglomerate who Forbes has estimated to be worth more than $15 billion, the people said. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect internal deliberations not yet made public. Usmanov was placed under sanctions by E.U. officials Monday. The U.S. sanctions would also probably include travel restrictions and the seizure of overseas assets that could run into the billions.
The U.S. is also expected to announce new sanctions on Belarus and Russian defense firms as soon as Wednesday, according to two other people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect matters not yet made public. Belarus has prepared to join the Russian invasion, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
America’s sanctions are expected to be more complicated than those imposed by the E.U., targeting not just the individuals but also their family members and companies they own, according to a White House official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect internal deliberations. President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night that the U.S. would join with Europe to “seize their yachts, their luxury apartments, their private jets.”
The Department of Justice on Wednesday also announced the creation of “Task Force KleptoCapture” to coordinate prosecutors and other federal investigators in the effort to prosecute sanctions against “corrupt Russian oligarchs.” The task force will be led by a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and include leadership from the FBI, U.S. Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security, and Internal Revenue Service, among other federal agencies.
“Tonight, I say to the Russian oligarchs and the corrupt leaders who built billions off this violent regime — no more,” the president said. “We’re coming for your ill-begotten gains.”
A Treasury spokeswoman declined to comment. Usmanov’s company Metalloinvest, a mining firm, said in a statement that it considers the sanctions against him to be “ungrounded and unfair.” Usmanov also released a statement accusing the E.U. of “false and defamatory allegations damaging my honour, dignity and business reputation.”
The additional sanctions represent one part of the unprecedented campaign of economic measures against Russian oligarchs tied to the Kremlin. In the past week alone, Western leaders have announced a series of punitive measures targeting the network of business executives and politically connected donors who are widely regarded as critical allies of the Russian president.
In addition to the sanctions released Monday by the E.U., Western leaders vowed this week to create a new “transatlantic task force” of law enforcement to help identify, and freeze, the assets of Russian oligarchs in violation of those sanctions.
Russia’s billionaires control roughly 30% of the nation’s wealth — compared with roughly 15% in Germany and the United States — and have about as much financial wealth stashed in offshore foreign accounts as the entire Russian population has in Russia itself, according to a 2017 paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Many of them have served at high levels of Putin’s government, or played an instrumental role in providing financing either for the Russian president personally or the Kremlin’s efforts abroad, according to E.U. officials.
The U.S. sanctions measures work by adding the Russian officials, business executives, companies and other groups to a list of “specially designated nationals,” maintained and published by the Treasury Department. Any entity or person appearing on that list will see their U.S. assets frozen, and Americans are generally barred from financial transactions with them.
A Washington Post investigation in 2021 based on a trove of financial records showed how existing U.S. sanctions hit their Russian targets. But it also underscored their limits, demonstrating how Russian money continues to move around the global financial system, often through secret accounts.
“It’s hard to express how massive a sea change this is for Western policy. The sanctions against these oligarchs are unprecedented in their scope and size; many of them were presumed to be untouchable,” said Paul Massaro, an anticorruption adviser to congressional lawmakers. “It will shake the rogue Putin regime to its core.”
But the West’s attempts to punish Russia’s financial elites face major logistical hurdles and carry the risk of further retaliation from the Kremlin. Some experts said they also might drive Russia’s business elites to be more, not less, supportive of Putin - while also potentially inadvertently hitting oligarchs who have opposed Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine.
At least in the United States, the effort to freeze or seize assets of Russians close to Putin is also likely to be stymied by a U.S. legal structure that allows anonymous actors, often using illicit funds, to form companies and purchase real estate and other assets under a strict veil of secrecy, said experts and transparency advocates.
Further complicating matters is that some of the oligarchs oversee global operations the United States and European Union may be uneasy about undermining. Typically, sanctions on foreign business elites lead to the seizure of their assets and of corporate holdings. But that can have a major impact on business operations involving commodities important to the world economy. Punitive measures could also hit Russian owners in the country’s gas-export sector, which the U.S. and Europe have generally sought to exempt from sanctions.
“If the goal is to both trap their ill-gotten gains while peeling them off President Putin, it’s not clear it has always worked that way,” said Adam Smith, a partner at Gibson Dunn and a former Obama administration sanctions official. “The record of sanctioning oligarchs is mixed.”
In 2017, Congress mandated that the Treasury Department provide a list of Russian oligarchs, though not that those oligarchs be subjected to sanctions. A Treasury spokesperson later said that the resulting unclassified list, published in 2018, was derived from a Forbes ranking of wealthy Russians.
But with a U.S. military response off the table, the momentum behind the sanctions effort has become unstoppable. The European Union on Monday unveiled a broader list of Russian officials newly placed under sanctions that included Usmanov, the mining magnate; Mikhail Fridman, the owner of a conglomerate that includes one of Russia’s biggest banks; and Nikolay Tokarev, CEO of a major Russian oil and gas company.
A spokesman for Fridman strongly disputed the allegations that he had supported Putin as “malicious and deliberate falsehoods . . . the product of historical fantasies and conspiracy theories dreamt up by private individuals with their own agendas.” Fridman, who was born in western Ukraine, said he opposes the war, Reuters reported on Sunday. Oleg Deripaska, another Russian billionaire the United States placed under sanctions in 2018, joined Fridman in rejecting the war effort.
Metalloinvest, the mining company owned by Usmanov, also said the company will not be affected by the E.U. impositions because the sanctions against Usmanov “are of a personal character.” Tokarev did not respond to a request for comment sent through his company, Transneft.
More sanctions may be on the way. A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants the Biden administration to impose sanctions on the “Navalny 35,” a list of Putin allies identified by a group tied to Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. That would amount to a dramatic expansion in the number of individual Russian business elites targeted for sanctions.
Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., one of the sponsors of that legislation, told The Post he has spoken in recent days with the administration and congressional leadership about reviving the expanded list of sanctions. Malinowski said he is also studying legal changes that could allow oligarchs’ confiscated assets to be given to Ukraine to assist in that country’s reconstruction, something he said is illegal under current law.
Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has also called for changing disclosure rules among private equity firms, hedge funds and venture capital funds so they would have to disclose potentially substantial amounts of offshore money. Wyden has pushed the Treasury Department to take that step, although it is unclear how much Russian money is held in these kinds of firms.
“In a war partly about morale on both sides, seeing Russian oligarchs’ yachts seized and sold at auction - seeing police at their villas, at their luxury apartments - will give Ukrainians and Russians who hate Putin a huge boost,” Malinowski said. “This is one of the ways in which we can weaken the support structure of this regime. . . . The more we can make the sanctions feel like a shock and awe campaign, the better.”
Key to the sanctions effort will be the new international task force - details of which remain vague - to identify and track where Russian oligarchs are parking their assets. Without that information, the sanctions can be evaded given that the oligarchs’ finances may go undetected.
Treasury is working to implement a law passed by Congress in January 2021 to put an end to anonymous shell companies that can be used for illicit ends by requiring companies registered in the United States to disclose their owners to the federal government. The law exempted 23 types of entities from the requirement, including investment funds and venture capital fund advisers. But the Treasury Department regulation that would implement the law has not been enacted, meaning any anonymous shell companies owned or controlled by Russians can still benefit from a veil of secrecy.
Transparency advocates have praised the beneficial ownership effort, though they have noted that many more measures are needed, including accountability for law firms that help set up offshore companies and trusts that do not report suspicious activities to law enforcement, as well as stronger measures that would require art dealers and others to know their true customers’ identities. They also noted that the Treasury Department agency implementing the rule, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, needs a large funding boost, which has been held up amid debates in Congress over a longer-term government spending bill.
“We need to take stock of our own role in enabling corrupt leaders from around the world to steal from state coffers and enjoy their illicitly obtained wealth here,” said Shruti Shah, president of the Coalition for Integrity, which advocates for anticorruption measures.
But the appetite in Congress may be materializing for those kinds of changes.
“Many of us on the Hill have said to the administration, ‘If there are any legal authorities that you need to strengthen your hand in going after the oligarchs, let us know,’” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said. “Because we do want to move quickly.”
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The Washington Post’s Tony Romm contributed reporting to this story.