Mar 15, 2022

Chasing dirty money

Casey Michel, author of American Kleptocracy, writes that the sanctions imposed in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are not enough:

Absent significant domestic reforms in the West—reforms that should have been enacted long ago—sanctions targeted at the oligarchic and official figures close to Russian President Vladmir Putin risk inflicting little more than a flesh wound on Russia’s imperial kleptocracy.

Rampant financial anonymity in places like the U.S. makes it relatively easy for powerful rich people to evade sanctions. A Russian oligarch may have multimillion-dollar mansions in Washington, D.C.; or multiple steel plants across the Rust Belt; or a controlling stake in a hedge fund in Greenwich, Connecticut; or an entire fleet of private jets in California; or an array of lawyers setting up purchases at art houses around the country. And all of that wealth can be hidden—perfectly legally—behind anonymous shell companies and trusts that are enormously difficult to penetrate.

If Western policy makers hope to hold Putin’s cronies truly accountable, sanctions will have to be paired with pro-transparency reforms that can disassemble this web of secrecy. Western governments should start by ending anonymity in shell companies and trusts; demanding basic anti-money-laundering checks for lawyers, art gallerists, and auction-house managers; and closing loopholes that allow anonymity in the real-estate, private-equity, and hedge-fund industries. That is, if the sanctions are to retain their bite, the entire counter-kleptocracy playbook needs to be implemented—immediately.

Global transparency reform is essential because the people and entities who are bankrolling Moscow’s bloodshed don’t exist in some kind of geopolitical vacuum, limiting their grand larceny to Russia alone. They rely not simply on access to the Kremlin and its largesse, but also on Western financial-secrecy tools to hide and launder their illicit wealth, destabilize markets, and upend Western polities.

Read more here.