If the United States really wants Russia to stop ransomware attacks and other hostile activities, Garry Kasparov has a solution ripped from his days as a chess grandmaster: Go after the king.
Russia President Vladimir Putin is thought to be worth tens of billions of dollars, Kasparov notes. Researchers have pieced together his alleged assets by examining everything from Putin’s luxury watches to a palace he’s said to frequent to unusual money trails that lead to his inner circle.
That secret wealth makes Putin uniquely vulnerable to U.S. sanctions, Kasparov argues. It’s time, he says, for the Biden administration to crack down on the billionaire loyalists who keep the Russian dictator in power and help hide his riches. The famed chess champ and Kremlin critic is not the only one pushing the idea: Activists working with imprisoned Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny have been circulating in Washington a list of 35 people linked to Putin whose assets they say America should freeze.
“It’s not an extreme measure. It’s the only effective one,” Kasparov told POLITICO. “Putin doesn’t care about Russia or Russians. There are no national interests, just his.”
But to the chagrin of Kasparov, his fellow Russian dissidents and even some former U.S. officials, President Joe Biden is resisting such appeals for now.
“We’re not really trying hard enough,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former top Pentagon official under then-President Barack Obama. “[Putin] is not taking the message from the new United States president seriously enough.”
Instead, Biden has turned to more traditional sanctions and diplomatic moves in the face-off with Russia. Some Biden aides are not convinced that going after Putin’s wealth will chasten him to the point critics predict. Instead, after a vigorous internal debate, White House officials decided on a less aggressive approach: They’ll put Russia on notice without escalating tensions or jeopardizing potential cooperation on shared challenges like climate change.
The result is a cautious strategy for how best to manage Russia while simultaneously shifting the bulk of U.S. efforts toward the perceived greater threat — China. What the United States seeks from Russia, administration officials say, is a “stable and predictable” relationship, not endless friction.
Russian dissidents and others say this approach won’t solve the root problem in Russia: rule by Putin and a clutch of loyal kleptocrats. (Putin‘s official income declarations cast him as a man of far more modest means than critics claim, with an annual income of under $200,000.) Nor will it deter Putin from causing trouble for America in the long run, they say.
“If you want to change Putin’s behavior, then the one thing you can do is focus on the thing he values most, which is the money that he’s stolen from the Russian people and he holds through these oligarchs,” said financier Bill Browder, a leading Putin critic and anti-corruption campaigner. “It’s truly a silver bullet in terms of dealing with Putin.”
Prefer to deter
Kremlin critics are somewhat surprised that Biden hasn’t already heeded their call to target Putin’s wealthy friends. After all, the president has promised to make fighting global corruption a national security priority, and he’s long been troubled by corruption in Russia and other former Soviet states.
Since taking office in January, Biden and his team have used visa bans and other measures to put the squeeze on allegedly corrupt figures — as well as their spouses and children — from Honduras to Ukraine. Biden also has ordered U.S. agencies to come up with new ways to battle corruption, arguing it is a threat to democracy around the world.
Russia offers no shortage of potential targets. The list of 35 people being circulated by Navalny’s crew includes: Roman Abramovich, a billionaire businessman who owns Britain’s Chelsea soccer club; Dmitry Patrushev, a banker from an influential family now serving as Russia’s agriculture minister; and Nikolay Tokarev, president of the Russian pipeline company Transneft.
But when it comes to these names and others in Russia, Biden is treading warily.
In April, the administration unveiled a package of measures to penalize Moscow for a range of anti-U.S. activity, including interference in the 2020 U.S. election and malicious cyber activities. The package included economic sanctions on dozens of non-oligarch individuals and entities, the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats, and some restrictions on U.S. financial institutions’ purchase of Russian government debt.
Biden and Putin met in Geneva in mid-June, a summit in which the U.S. president warned his Russian counterpart that the United States would respond to Russian provocations. Biden also has told Putin that the U.S. would hold the Russian leader responsible for cracking down on groups that engage in cyberattacks from Russian soil, even if those organizations weren’t directed by the Kremlin.
Still, in the weeks both before and after the summit, ransomware attacks by groups believed to be based in Russia targeted many U.S companies. One even forced the shutdown of Colonial Pipeline, causing gas shortages in parts of the country. The Commerce Department recently announced new restrictions on U.S. companies’ dealings with a handful of Russian technology firms. Amid the uproar, REvil, the group that was behind some recent ransomware strikes, went offline for unclear reasons.
It’s possible that Biden has green-lighted classified actions in the cyber sphere and beyond to undercut the Kremlin. His top aides have said the U.S. strategy toward Russia will evolve as needed and that not all of it will be visible. But critics say these moves won’t be enough to deter Putin, who has found ways to adjust to incremental U.S. maneuvers.
Farkas said Biden needs to take bold steps that amount to a deterrent against Putin, not simply to play defense. She recommended restrictions that would affect Russian sovereign debt, but also agreed that going after the assets of Putin and his oligarch friends could be an important part of that deterrent.
“They’re in our nuclear power grid, they’re in our water grid, they’re in our electric grid — because that’s how they intend to fight a potential war with us,” Farkas said of the Kremlin. “I think it’s dangerous to roll over. We’re just tempting Putin. He doesn’t understand anything but firmness.”
Biden administration officials argue that past U.S. sanctions on Russia’s oligarchs haven’t succeeded the way Washington hoped and that there’s no guarantee that future ones will.
In 2014, Obama unveiled economic sanctions on several Russian oligarchs and aides close to Putin, aiming to punish Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine. Targets included Gennady Timchenko, a founder of a major commodity trading company in the oil and energy markets, and Yuri Kovalchuk, Putin’s personal banker.
Former President Donald Trump’s administration announced similar steps in April 2018, targeting several more Russian tycoons and government officials. The Trump administration cited an array of Russian activities, including interference in U.S. elections, as a reason for the move.
The people sanctioned included aluminum tycoon Oleg Deripaska as well as companies linked to him. The Trump administration later lifted sanctions on the companies after facing a lobbying campaign that pointed out how the sanctions had roiled global metals markets. In the years since, questions have arisen about whether Deripaska violated an agreement that led to the sanctions being taken off the companies.
Overall, though, neither the Obama nor the Trump sanctions on Russian oligarchs seemed to deter Putin from moves that undermine U.S. interests, administration officials and others said. In fact, because U.S. sanctions made it harder for these tycoons and their families to access American and other financial systems, they may have led to more loyalty to Putin.
“In many cases, we’ve seen that the oligarchs have then become more dependent on patronage and state contracts from the Russian state,” a senior Biden administration official said.
The official added that it’s overly simplistic to characterize the Russian government as a kleptocracy or say that Putin’s only interest is money. “Clearly he has other ambitions on the geopolitical stage beyond just money and enriching himself and his cronies,” the official said.
Analysts point out that developing sanctions is a complex process that requires meeting certain evidentiary thresholds. The mere fact that a person is rich and friends with Putin isn’t enough.
Some also say that anti-Putin crusaders are overestimating America’s knowledge of and access to where Putin and his friends have stashed their funds around the world. Besides, even if the U.S. manages to freeze a portion of a Putin crony’s assets, that person will likely still live quite comfortably.
“We don’t really know where all the money is,” one former U.S. official familiar with the issue said. “It’s hidden so deeply that you don’t know where it’s going to crop up.”
There are plenty of other reasons to avoid the kleptocrat crackdown for now, administration officials and outside analysts say.
For one thing, the president may want to retain some leverage for use later. Biden has signaled that he wants to give Putin time to prove whether he can be a constructive partner, including on issues like battling ransomware. After the June summit, U.S. officials were heartened by a senior Russian security official’s remark that Russia was willing to work with the United States to take on cyber criminals.
There’s also the possibility that, instead of acting as a deterrent, slamming sanctions on Putin’s wealthy friends could lead to an escalating cycle of retaliation. Even actions that only somewhat undercut Putin’s control — say, by weakening his power base when his associates realize they can’t access their money — could damage Russia’s economy to the point where it hurts Europe’s economy and, eventually, the American economy.
Taken to the extreme, moves that could lead to the fall of Putin might prove even more destabilizing in unpredictable ways. U.S. officials, remembering the chaos of the post-Cold War era, are mindful that Russia’s massive arsenal of nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands.
Biden, who has decades of foreign policy experience, has never trusted Putin, a former KGB officer. But the president also understands the bigger geostrategic calculations involved, analysts and former officials said.
“There’s no way President Biden is going to seek to personalize this with Putin,” a former senior U.S. official said. “To the extent you’ll see gloves coming off, it will be in a narrow and targeted way.”
For many Putin critics, that’s not sufficient.
The United States has not sanctioned enough of Putin’s cronies, nor even the right ones, they argue. They also dismiss the notion that past sanctions on the oligarchs made no difference, saying that without those penalties Putin might have done even more to frustrate the West.
“He hasn’t pulled out of Ukraine,” Browder said of Putin, “but how much more territory would have taken if we hadn’t sanctioned the oligarchs?”
Russian dissidents linked to Navalny — whose poisoning and detention has spurred its own U.S. sanctions on Moscow, with more still expected –—have given the Biden administration the list of 35 people to target. The list includes oligarchs as well as alleged human rights abusers. Several of the people listed already face some U.S. sanctions.
U.S. officials seem willing to consider the list, said Leonid Volkov, a top Navalny aide, who met with an array of leading figures while in Washington earlier this year.
However, “they very clearly indicated they don’t have any appetite to move on with the sanctions alone, so they want to do it with partners,” he said.
Volkov agreed that a coordinated sanctions effort would be more powerful than the United States acting alone, especially considering how many Russian tycoons keep their money in real estate or other holdings in Europe. But he also noted that such coordination takes time and could run into roadblocks from Putin-friendly world leaders.
In the meantime, Navalny’s foundation intends to keep pursuing its investigations, compiling evidence packs that the Biden team and others can turn to if and when they decide to go after Russia’s kleptocrats and their friend atop the Kremlin.
“Our point is that this has to be a priority,” Volkov said.
Browder said Biden’s team reminded him of the Obama years, when many of the same officials over-analyzed situations so much that they came across as timid if not outright frozen. That included Obama, who was keen to avoid escalation with Moscow.
“These people are all great policy wonks. They’re not gunslingers, they’re policy wonks,” Browder said. “In many respects, that’s a good thing, but sometimes you need some gunslingers.”