Solidarity in support of Ukraine after Russia’s unprovoked full-scale invasion has proven more durable than many expected at the outset of the conflict. The support has held even as the conflict drags on and winter approaches, amid warnings of inflation, additional refugees, and energy shortages. Russian President Vladimir Putin has removed any illusions about his intentions with his latest gambit to claim additional Ukrainian territory and his threats to use nuclear weapons. And yet it is no longer clear whether bold words from democracies at the outset of the invasion will lead to necessary actions to finish the fight against kleptocracy that fueled this war and that is at the heart of the corrosive engagement pursued by autocratic regimes around the world.
Thinking Autocrats Will Be Good Global Citizens
The response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine revealed what had been hiding in plain sight: that autocrats extend their hold on power in today’s interconnected world by hiding money in Western financial institutions that offer the protection of rule of law and then by using that money to exert influence abroad. Immediately after the invasion, it was remarkable how many Russian oligarchs were sanctioned and stepped down from the boards of prominent institutions in democratic societies — from the Geneva-based World Economic Forum to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City — where they had been laundering their reputations to distance themselves from the autocratic regimes on which they depend.
In hindsight, it was misguided to think that by allowing oligarchs and their money into their business, cultural, and financial institutions, democracies would encourage autocrats to be good global citizens even if only to protect the money they hid abroad. Illicit finance infiltrating democratic societies has been exposed for what it is — a national security threat. It emboldens autocrats to undermine democracies and empowers them to advance their agendas through election interference, disinformation campaigns, and increasingly military force.
Giving Them “Nowhere to Hide”
After years of gradual if important steps against kleptocracy, the dramatic response after the invasion struck many as previously unimaginable, perhaps to the autocrats above all. Since the invasion, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Switzerland have seized more than $240 billion dollars of resources held by Russian oligarchs in those countries’ financial institutions. The U.K. declared that oligarchs would have “nowhere to hide” under toughened sanctions and that it will reform its libel laws to discourage wealthy individuals, including those outside the U.K., from using expensive lawsuits to deter investigations into kleptocracy.
Yet enthusiastic calls to use the frozen assets of Russian oligarchs to support Ukraine’s reconstruction have largely stalled, as the legal and financial challenges to doing so became clearer. Despite dramatic images of yachts being seized, the vast majority of sanctioned assets are being hidden in open societies with the willing assistance of lawyers, accountants, real estate agents, and public affairs professionals that enable this secrecy.
Experts warn that countries like the U.K. have done little to secure the resources needed to tackle the problem, describing the U.K.’s Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation as “short-staffed when its role is most essential.” Proving the ownership of illicit assets in a court of law will require time-consuming legal and administrative expertise, given the shell companies and complex bureaucratic systems that obscure who owns what across jurisdictions.
Seizing Yachts Won’t Be Enough
To address this challenge for the longer haul, democratic societies need to take a number of critical steps. First, leaders in democratic societies must prevent Russian narratives that justify violence and decry sanctions from gaining influence by elevating Ukrainian voices defending their democracy against an unprovoked invasion. Those voices must be heard not only in the United States and Europe but in the rest of the world where, regrettably, Russian narratives are often repeated, inflected with efforts to undermine democratic unity by casting it in colonial terms.
Second, to sustain momentum for action in the face of inflation and energy crises, political leaders must continue to speak about kleptocracy as the national security threat that it is and resist the old temptation to shrug and portray it as an unfortunate but legal byproduct of globalization. The co-president of the Swiss Social Democrats could not have been clearer when she warned, “The money and their activity … helps finance the war.” Russia is attracting much of the public attention these days, and rightfully so, but regimes in Venezuela, Equatorial Guinea, and Central Asia, among others, also follow the modern kleptocrats’ playbook, making this a truly global challenge.
Third, democracies must finish the job and address weaknesses in their own societies that facilitate kleptocracy. A bipartisan majority in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year passed the ENABLERS Act, which requires U.S. professional service providers of legal and financial assistance to overseas clients to comply with the same due diligence and transparency requirements that apply to banks in order to combat money laundering. But the legislation risks losing momentum in the U.S. Senate, which has not yet brought forth a companion bill and proposed $21 million less in funding to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, whose work (alongside its British counterpart) will be critical to ensuring that kleptocrats understand they will be pursued to justice.
Fourth, the fight against kleptocracy requires sustaining nimble networks of investigative journalists and civil society activists who have the expertise to track, monitor, and identify kleptocratic activity across borders. It was the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists working with journalists from more than 100 countries that did the hard and dangerous work of identifying and exposing the offshore accounts of world leaders, autocrats, and oligarchs that led to the release of the Pandora and Paradise papers. They need support, and they need protection from regimes that target them physically and from libel lawsuits intended to silence them, including journalists like Catherine Belton, the author of the book “Putin’s People,” who was the subject of five defamation lawsuits by oligarchs in the U.K.
Fifth, the community of democratic states must be prepared to adapt just as the oligarchs and authoritarian systems that stand behind them are shifting their tactics. Already, there are reportedly nearly 20 pending lawsuits in European courts identified only by the family names of the plaintiffs that likely are related to sanctions on oligarchs and their families. Such lawsuits have proven successful in previous high-profile cases like Egypt’s Mubarak family after the Arab Spring, where EU sanctions were ultimately declared to be unlawful.
Kleptocratic regimes will seek new havens for illicit resources, including in undemocratic countries that may make these resources even more difficult to track. Even as sanctions have cut powerful Russians from travel to Europe, travel from Moscow to Dubai is booming, and yachts have been moved to Turkey where EU law does not apply.
Kleptocrats are waiting to see whether momentum will fade. The community of democracies must show them otherwise, not just because it is the right thing to do but because kleptocracy is a threat to our own societies, and we must make sure it doesn’t happen again.