As a nation that keeps the mummy of a past political leader stored and publicly visible on the capital city’s main square, it’s fair to say that Russians are into personality cults.
That is why the world must not underestimate the role of personal sanctions imposed by the West against Russia in response to the full-scale attack on Ukraine.
Russian propaganda is already creating a mythology around personal sanctions. Those who have absorbed the most sanctions so far are honored as the “biggest patriots of Russia.” This despite their children studying in British schools, their yachts moored in Italy and their mansions standing in southern France.
Since the start of the invasion of Ukraine, the West has taken significant steps to strengthen its personal sanctions strategy. Sanctions are now imposed on perpetrators of this humanitarian, military, economic and cultural tragedy; as well as their children who are often cynically used to hide their parents’ assets. By imposing sanctions on the “core matryoshka dolls” in the family, the United States, the European Union and other countries have closed a major loophole, developing a best practice that must be applied across the board against Russia.
Now that we have recovered from the first shock of the war, it is time to further advance our approach to personal sanctions against Russia, making it more structured and effective.
For its part, Ukraine has done everything possible to facilitate this process for our allies.
Under the leadership of former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, and Ukrainian Presidential Chief of Staff, Andriy Yermak, we have developed a detailed Action Plan on Strengthening Sanctions against the Russian Federation. Among contributors to the Plan are representatives of academia and experts who know the targets to hit that will weaken Russia without causing incidental harm to the world economy.
We at Ukraine’s National Agency on Corruption Prevention have identified over 19,000 individuals who should be sanctioned immediately while the overall number of individuals sanctioned by all G7 States remains alarmingly low. To be precise, since February, G7 states have targeted only 1,829 individuals, which, put in perspective, is nearly five times less than the number of civilians killed during the war in Ukraine.
On closer inspection, a serious gap between the number of individuals sanctioned in at least one G7 jurisdiction and those who are sanctioned by all G7 countries stands out – nearly 400 out of more than 1,850.
By way of example, not more than ten individuals of the Russian military staff have been sanctioned by all G7 states while nearly 175 individuals have been sanctioned in at least one G7 jurisdiction. Out of total number sanctioned under this category, those ten make up just five percent.
Another category of individual who are, to date, escaping sanctions are propagandists. Their role in warmongering can hardly be overestimated; yet only two individuals have been sanctioned by all G7 states, just 2 percent of nearly 100 individuals sanctioned in at least one G7 jurisdiction.
Two immediate conclusions can be made. First, there is still room for expansion of the overall number of sanctioned individuals; and second, there is still room for making the sanctions regime more homogenous by taking up further sanctions against an individual already sanctioned by allies.
Otherwise sanctioned persons will continue to circumvent restrictions by transferring their assets to a jurisdiction where they have not yet been the target of sanctions. Russian oligarchs and corrupt government officials have, in the past, gamed this system well.
A clear objective must be developed and, importantly, synchronized – imposing personal sanctions from all countries which will weaken Vladimir Putin and his oligarch entourage and provide no escape for those who have capitalized on their connections to a violent, corrupt Russia. That means targeting those whose support of the war cannot be doubted, such as Russian government officials, Russian state-owned enterprises, government-controlled media, government propagandists and Russian oligarchs who appear in the Forbes magazine personal wealth rankings. Targeting these individuals will cast doubt on Russia’s ability to wage war as the cogs of Putin’s “vertical power” will be preoccupied with their and their children’s futures.
To improve sanctions synchrony, the Yermak-McFaul Working Group has proposed establishing a dedicated committee of sanctioning countries to manage trade and economic relations with Russia by developing, coordinating and enforcing sanctions – perhaps under the guidance of G7 countries.
The sanctions should nudge these people significantly toward rethinking the cost of war and recognizing the gravity of their role in fueling barbaric violence in Ukraine. Ideally, they will leave any posts that directly or indirectly support Putin’s capacity in this war, the world’s united and synchronized sanctions should challenge the Russian state system and cause an administrative collapse replete with resignations en masse.
Nevertheless, well-connected individuals like the Chair of Russia’s Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina, who have not yet been sanctioned by the U.S., should have a right to be partly exempt from sanctions if they resign and blow the whistle on their colleagues’ assets and corrupt connections. With their help, we may be able to discover the well-hidden assets of the Russian government’s top dogs – assets which should unquestionably be used for rebuilding Ukraine after the war.
To this end, we in Ukraine have developed a special whistleblower tool under the War & Sanctions portal on our website, serving as an important instrument for our Task Force in tracing Russian assets abroad. With hundreds of whistleblower reports received so far, we already have a database of trustworthy information on assets of sanctioned Russian and Belarusian individuals in the U.K., Switzerland, the U.S., New Zealand, Poland and other countries. Now it is time to take legislative measures to seize these assets and use the proceeds to fund Ukraine’s reconstruction.
The other advantage of targeted personal sanctions is that they can be as effective as financial sanctions or an oil embargo. Individual sanctions can be more immediate in action, since the risk of sanctioning and losing control over their Western assets can encourage elites to resign from their positions and voice disagreement with the Kremlin’s policy more quickly.
To stop Russia from committing more war crimes, it must be defeated. Period. Otherwise, one can expect just a brief pause before Putin again attacks Ukraine or another neighboring country, threatening the world’s security and amplifying his nuclear saber-rattling. Considering the right to life and well-being as supreme values, Ukraine deems international sanctions to be a matter of saving millions of innocent civilians on our land and possibly the entire continent of Europe.
To reach this goal, we can either ensure Russia’s defeat on the battlefield or catalyze the regime’s total collapse as soon as possible, or both. Imposing personal sanctions to bring about administrative collapse might be the most effective tool for accomplishing this.
The sooner we knock down Putin’s matryoshka dolls, the sooner we restore the peace in Europe.
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