April 15, 2022

Seize Russian yachts, jets and Picassos. Then use the money to help Ukraine.

We've introduced legislation that would give President Joe Biden the authority to seize Russian assets and give increased support to Ukraine.

The split screen is stomach-turning: In Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s rockets fall on fleeing refugees, missiles gash occupied apartment buildings and hospitals, and civilians huddle in metro stations as bombs fall above.

Outside Ukraine, mega-yachts ferry Russian oligarchs between tropical islands, private jets shuttle them to ski vacations and priceless art adorns the walls of their villas.

Putin’s enablers – and even members of his family – live abroad in laundered luxury off the wealth they stole with his permission.

Now imagine those mega-yachts commandeered, the private jets grounded and requisitioned, and the high-priced art whisked off to auction from the seized villas – with the proceeds used to aid the Ukrainian people. That would be a fitting use of the money that built the army besieging their nation.

Freeze and seize

Some nations have already started this work:

  • France has claimed a luxury yacht worth almost $120 million linked to Russian oil tycoon Igor Sechin.
  • German authorities have restricted a yacht worth more than $600 million owned by Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov.
  • The United Kingdom is exploring new authorities to sanction oligarch wealth in a range of forms – action that has sent oligarchs in “Londongrad” scurrying for cover.

Under current law, the United States and our allies can generally “block” or freeze such assets – temporarily denying sanctioned oligarchs and companies their use – but not seize them outright.

We believe an exception should be made for Russia following Putin’s murderous invasion of Ukraine, given the clear evidence that sanctioned oligarchs made their billions thanks to corrupt relationships with the Russian government and the likely massive cost of reconstructing Ukraine when Russia’s armies are beaten back.

It is hard to imagine giving Putin’s cronies their stolen assets back after the harm they helped him cause. And a half-billion-dollar yacht could rebuild a lot of schools, hospitals and apartment buildings in Ukraine.

So with bipartisan support, we have introduced legislation in the House and Senate to give the Biden administration the authority, limited to two years, to seize sanctioned Russians’ assets and to use them to support humanitarian, military and reconstruction aid to Ukraine.

This would give the United States a powerful new tool to punish – or leverage cooperation from – the wealthy and powerful Russians who have supported Putin’s regime while giving Ukrainians a small measure of justice. There are even signs that the European Union and European allies are exploring options to confiscate assets of sanctioned Russian kleptocrats.

Putin and his cronies are nothing special – they just happen to run a big, oil-rich country with a military at their command. We’ve long known, as Sen. John McCain often used to say, that “Putin is a gangster, with an army, running a gas station.”

Yet for far too long, the United States and our European allies have been complicit in the kleptocracy that Putin built. We’ve allowed his cronies the best of both worlds: They steal money at home, where there is no rule of law, and then shelter it in jurisdictions like New York, Paris and London behind rule-of-law protections.

In those wealthy enclaves, kleptocrat money has enriched lawyers, trust fund managers, real estate brokers and art dealers, while driving up costs for everyone else.

Congress must act

That strengthens the moral case for taking the extraordinary measures we propose. Those efforts will be complicated and must be well funded: We should fully fund, for example, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, which tracks the movement of dirty money around the world. We passed a limited boost in the Ukraine funding package, but FinCEN needs more.

We will also need to coordinate closely with allies to close off sanctuaries for oligarchs and collect the evidence needed to justify asset seizures. The Biden administration has announced a transatlantic, interagency task force to help find and crack down on ill-gotten assets stowed in the West by Russian oligarchs, their families and their stooges. That is a good start and something Congress will need to oversee and expand.

Putin’s Ukraine invasion must result in a decisive, strategic defeat for his regime, its enablers and what they stand for. As Ukraine battles the onslaught, ordinary Ukrainians – and Russians – should see oligarchs’ yachts, jets and Picassos auctioned off. They should see police tape around oligarch villas and penthouse apartments.

These goods and properties should not automatically be returned to their corrupt owners when the crisis is over. The wealth that supported Putin’s regime should be used to rebuild the country he is destroying.

By: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ)