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The effects of sanctions targeting Russian oligarchs


Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western countries, quote, "akin to a declaration of war," unquote. But President Biden says Putin chose this war, and his country will bear the consequences. And a priority among the administration's targets will be those who have built their wealth through close ties to Putin. Here's what President Biden said during his State of the Union address.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I say to the Russian oligarchs and the corrupt leaders who bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime - no more.

MARTIN: That's where he announced a new task force called KleptoCapture, to enforce sanctions and seize oligarchs assets like luxury real estate, yachts and private jets worth hundreds of millions of dollars. At least eight oligarchs have been added to a U.S. sanctions list, along with members of their families, and travel restrictions were imposed on 19 others and 47 of their associates.

We wanted to know more about the effect these sanctions could have and how they will be enforced, so we called Paul Massaro. He's a congressional foreign policy adviser who specializes in sanctions, illicit finance and counter corruption. And he's with us now. Mr. Massaro, thanks so much for joining us.

PAUL MASSARO: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Could you just give us a sense of the scope of these sanctions targeting oligarchs? I was wondering how they compare to what's been levied in the past. And what does that tell you about what the administration's intentions are?

MASSARO: Oh, for sure. So this is totally new. We are breaking ground here and maybe some of the most important ground we've ever broken. We have been calling for many years for sanctioning oligarchs, going after the oligarchs who are really the appendages of Putin's regime, Putin's now rogue state in the West. However, there's always been a little bit of hesitancy to do this, given how powerful they are, their lawyers, their lobbyists, the billions of dollars that they control. But it seems all of that has been kind of wiped off the board, and we are going for it now.

MARTIN: I want to dig into a little bit more about who's been targeted and why, but I want to pick up on something you just said, which is that people like yourself, I know that analysts in the CIA - we've talked to a number of people in the last week - say they've been calling for these kinds of measures for years. So these people, their wealth, their possible criminal dealings, connection to President Putin is not new. So why now? Why did it take Russia invading Ukraine to take these steps?

MASSARO: Well, yeah, I mean, that's the great question, is how we got to here? With the attack on Kyiv and this all-out war on Ukraine, even the West, which had been sort of asleep for so long, almost in a wishful thinking or self-imposed denial about who Putin is, has woken up in a massive way and said, OK, enough is enough. We are going to target this state like we've never targeted before and target this tyrant like we've never targeted him before.

MARTIN: Do you have a sense of why specific people were targeted?

MASSARO: Yeah. So I mean, these are oligarchs that are very close to Putin. I think that right now we're thinking in terms of who do we have the most evidence on? Who has the most obvious assets? Who would do the most damage to the Putin rogue state? It's very important that we do this in coordination with our allies, and I think we saw that because so many of these oligarch assets are held in London, their yachts that are held in Europe.

So I think that we need to emphasize what a difficult task we have before us. You know, there's been now 20 years of financial anonymity, anonymous trusts, anonymous shell companies. You know, it's - this - it's not like we can magically snap our fingers and get all this stuff. We don't really know where a lot of it is, either, but we're going to find out.

MARTIN: OK. Can I just ask a question, though? - because one of the New York newspapers has actually printed a map with some of the properties held by some of these figures with names attached. Some of them have two and three multimillion dollar properties in the same neighborhood. So I guess I'm just wondering why, if a New York newspaper has a map with these people's properties listed on it, why doesn't the U.S. government know where they are?

MASSARO: So the properties, the physical property, is going to be the easiest stuff to get. Some of the stuff that's harder to get and is actually worth a lot more are the slush funds, the anonymous bank accounts and so on and so forth. It's not something that you can just do immediately. There are very strong protections against the - you know, the seizure of property by the government in the United States, and for good reason. You know, you have a right to your property in this country, and it's a very important right.

MARTIN: But I also can see where regular citizens see where somebody is, say, driving across state lines with a large amount of cash, and their vehicle is seized. And the attitude by law enforcement is, we'll sort it out later, or that people are taken into custody with properties that seem to be suspicious, and they are - you know, those properties are seized, and the law enforcement says, we'll sort it out later. And I think a lot of regular people would wonder why it is that some guy driving across state lines with $20,000 in a suitcase can have his property seized and the courts will sort it out later, but these multimillionaires - in some cases billionaires - enjoy this protection. You see my question?

MASSARO: I see your question, and I want to tell you this is what makes the oligarchs so dangerous. It's not fair. I mean, these guys have billions of dollars to throw at this stuff. The British - this was in a parliament intelligence report - they lose cases against these individuals because they can't finish cases. They literally run out of money before they can finish the case. These are state actors, you know, with multiple billions at their disposal that have been told by Putin and given - been empowered by Putin and control state-owned and state-influenced Russian companies and huge stakes and other sort of investments who are here to subvert our democracy and subvert our commerce and the rule of law and so on and so forth. So if you screw up a legal process against these guys, they'll take it all the way.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, it just sounds to me as though you're saying this is a very lengthy process. And so if that's the case, how will this be helpful in the current crisis...

MASSARO: Yeah. So, I mean...

MARTIN: ...When so many people are literally being slaughtered? So what is - the endgame goal would seem to me to demand accountability in the long term. But is there any near-term benefit to this?

MASSARO: Yeah, there is. And this is where the sanctions piece and the sort of ability to seize and then forfeit down the line - right? - comes from, is you can - in the short term, we can disable these individuals. In the long term, we're going to able to get this money. And then I also will say that there is at least one bill floating through Congress right now that would allow essentially a special authority to confiscate this property given the kind of wartime nature of what's going on. It would be a temporary authority to move more quickly on these things so that you can get to go from sanction to seizure to forfeiture more quickly.

MARTIN: That was Paul Massaro. He's a congressional foreign policy adviser who specializes in sanctions, illicit finance and counter corruption. Mr. Massaro, thanks so much for talking with us.

MASSARO: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.