As we approach the second year of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, a false narrative has emerged that the West is doing everything it can to responsibly support Ukraine, without escalating the conflict.
That narrative belies an uncomfortable but necessary truth: The current path risks defeat, and a better path to victory is crippling Vladimir Putin’s massive web of wealthy enablers – who are still living the high life in the Western countries they claim to detest but love to invest, vacation and live in.
The recent announcement that the United States will send the M1 Abrams tank was billed as a major shot in the arm for Ukraine’s historic fight for independence. The news came shortly after Davos, where attendees whispered compliments about their strong support for Ukraine, which in their view is a victory in and of itself.
I have been on or near the front lines of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine for most of the last year, providing tens of millions of dollars in medicines, generators and basic supplies to help the Ukrainian people - and witnesssing the torture and murder of civilians, systemic rape and other crimes against humanity by Russian forces.
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Many Western elites and policymakers, are divorced from reality in their belief that loophole-ridden sanctions and slow-walking new aid will win the war.
The United States and its allies deserve enormous credit for uniting to provide military and humanitarian aid to help brave Ukrainians defend their nation. But they must do more.
To bring a halt to the savagery, the West must hit the Russian government where it hurts and target the vast network of oligarchs that prop it up. The media breathlessly reports on the occasional seizure of a luxury yacht but the hard truth is that the Russian elite have managed to successfully evade the toothless sanctions currently in place.
Just look at London’s Billionaires Row, France’s swankiest shopping districts and ski resorts like Courchevel, or the resorts in Maldives and Dubai. They are all jam-packed with big-spending, Kremlin-connected Russians enjoying legal impunity and living like the gods they think they are. I suspect that nearly every $25,000-a-night hotel room in the world is occupied by a Russian.
Until this changes, these powerful oligarchs will continue to support Putin’s bloody war. They currently aren’t paying any price. Thus, targeting and seizing the wealth of Putin’s many collaborators is an essential part of any real strategy to end his disastrous invasion of Ukraine.
What does that mean specifically? Take Sergei Chemezov, the CEO of the Russian state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec Corp., and a longtime Putin confidante. His $80 million 737 airplane continues to travel around Europe, despite sanctions imposed on Chemezov. How? Last year his plane was re-registered in Serbia, and now it travels freely to Serbia, Switzerland, Croatia and Austria. That plane is ripe for seizure in any number of European jurisdictions.
Or look at Roman Abramovich, the longtime owner of the Chelsea football club. He may have been forced to sell his team, but a new investigation from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project reveals that he is still getting financing from Credit Suisse, despite sanctions.
Finally, consider Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of The Wagner Group, a Russlan paramilitary organization whose mercenaries are fighting for Russia in Ukraine. One might assume that Prigozhin is exactly the kind of businessman the West would target most vociferously with sanctions, given his direct role in the war. And yet, the British government apparently issued a special carveout allowing him to hire lawyers in the U.K. to sue a journalist.
These kleptocrats are near the top of any public, let alone classified, list of Putin enablers. And they are prime examples of how weak current sanctions are. If Prigozhin, a potential successor to Putin, gets special treatment from No. 10 Downing Street, imagine the warm welcome the rest of the Russian kleptocracy receives from banks, realtors, top tier schools, and the most exclusive resorts across the world.
The West helped create the elaborate schemes and accounting structures that oligarchs use to maintain and grow their fortunes. That’s why the West must uncover and eradicate them. The U.S. in particular must also insist that its allies cease enabling Russian oligarchs
The United States and its allies must make three major changes quickly to save the lives of tens of thousands of Ukrainians and bring an end to Russia’s bloodshed.
First, they must put meaningful manpower behind sanctions implementation, recruiting the best expertise from the private sector to enforce the sanctions that have been announced and give them real teeth.
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Second, expand the list of Russians who are subject to sanctions. The current list only scratches the surface of those who are supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Finally, the West must deny Russian oligarchs the safe harbors around the world where they reside, vacation and invest their ill-gotten wealth. If they want to support Putin, let them sit in Moscow with him.
That kind of crackdown on the Kremlin’s oligarchs will have long-term benefits for the future security of Europe. And for Russia. Putin won’t be in power forever. But whoever comes next will find themselves surrounded by an intelligence service, military, mercenary industry, and economic elites deeply invested in corruption, organized crime and violent nationalism. Unless Europe and the U.S. decide that enough is enough.
The new tanks will only buy Kyiv time before Russia’s seemingly unlimited military manpower and willingness to absorb massive battlefield losses will start another conversation about what other weapons systems Ukraine needs. It’ll be Groundhog Day, all over again.
The best way to break the current deadly stalemate reminiscent of the trenches in World War I is to try a new approach. Show Putin’s vast army of enablers that their lifestyles and wealth aren’t safe as long as Russia continues to wage war against innocent Ukrainian civilians.