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Several days ago I was listening to an interview and a part of it was along the following lines:

  • Reporter: how can the US (NATO) and EU prevent Russia from waging war on Ukraine? It is clear that current sanctions that are in place for many years were not enough.
  • Analyst: (besides other arguments) to put pressure on the main Putin's supporting oligarchs by suggesting significant financial loss to them (not only to Russia as a state) should Russia starts the war

Wikipedia mentions the fact that Putin managed to stay in power with the support of several oligarchs:

Between 2000 and 2004, Putin apparently engaged in a power struggle with some oligarchs, reaching a "grand bargain" with them. This bargain allowed the oligarchs to maintain their powers, in exchange for their explicit support of – and alignment with – Putin's government

I have also read the possible NATO responses to an invasion from this answer, but none seem to be the idea mentioned by the analyst.

I have found this press release mentioning that the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned four individuals engaged in Russian government-directed influence activities to destabilize Ukraine, but this is far from sanctioning billionaires supporting Putin.

I am wondering if US, UK and EU have any sort of mechanism to incur serious financial consequences to Putin's oligarchs. UK would be an interesting case because it seems to hold quite a few oligarchs commuting between London and Russia:

A significant number of Russian oligarchs have bought homes in upmarket sections of London (..) Most own homes in both countries, as well as property and, have acquired controlling interests in major European companies. They commute on a regular basis between the EU and Russia; in many cases, their families reside in London, with their children attending school there.

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    They will certainly try. But it's a policy that takes money out of the pockets of big banks in London etc, who in turn are the principal sponsors of the policy-making apparatus.
    – Pete W
    Jan 28 at 19:35
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    Why should they not can? Surely oligarchs will have money invested everywhere and are therefore vulnerable everywhere to some extent.
    – Trilarion
    Feb 3 at 20:31

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There's a particular form of crony capitalism that underlies many authoritarian regimes: a peculiar way of 'nationalizing' industry through the market. The Nazis relied on it, Russia uses it, certain South and Central American regimes establish it with drug cartels, even the Trump administration showed elements of it. It's effectively an evolution of feudalism in which the ruling party tacitly agrees that powerful individuals (hereafter 'oligarchs') are de facto sovereign within certain domains. In other words, the government:

  • Will not investigate (or even deign to notice) certain activities or events these powerful 'oligarchs' engage in, nor allow outsiders to do so
  • Will defend the 'rights' and 'liberties' of oligarchs, usually above those of everyone else
  • Will direct government resources — contracts, benefits, police forces, etc. — to support the oligarchs' interests
  • Will sanction and support ventures or other profitable activities by these oligarchs

In turn, the ruling party receives loyalty (aka fealty) from these oligarchs, who use their resources and organizations to further the ends of the ruling party. The only deal-breaker is if some powerful individuals become a threat or an embarrassment to the ruling party: challenging the leader, revealing things the party would prefer to be kept secret, having some dirty, depraved behavior exposed... Oligarchs who do not toe the autocrat line are crushed quickly and ruthlessly by the state.

It's a nefarious win-win for the ruling party and powerful private citizens: they stroke each other's egos, fill each other's pockets, maintain each other's secrets, and keep out of each other's hair. It's like Fight Club, or Las Vegas: every crony is committed to keeping what cronies do safe, secure, and secret.

Sanctioning Russian oligarchs would be more likely to solidify the 'crony capitalist' mindset than influence Putin. Putin would do his best to protect sanctioned oligarchs and give them new avenues for exploitation, and the oligarchs would respond with increased fealty to Putin's own interests. Systems like this only break up when the authoritarian rule or ruler appears too weak to continue protecting the fiefdoms these oligarchs have carved out for themselves. And even then, the oligarchs generally slink away until the regime either collapses or reasserts itself; they'll put a finger to the wind to find out where profit lies, and wait until the weather is right.

Putin's problem right now is how best not to appear weak. Attacking Ukraine too directly might expose vulnerabilities; retreating under US and NATO pressure might telegraph fear. He has to continue to appear as a powerful, dangerous ruler to keep oligarchs from scurrying away, but if he overplays it he might find himself in a position where he lacks the power and prestige to keep oligarchs interested in supporting him. I suspect he may simply drag this out for a while as a purely political confrontation with the West until he can get some sort of appeasement that will make him look good in the eyes of the oligarchs. But time will tell.

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Can the US and EU sanction the oligarchs

Yes. Some if not all names are known and sanctions are possible.

oligarchs supporting Putin

Somewhat more opaque. From "supporting" over "going along" to "forced to go along," the relationship between Putin and the oligarchs is far from uniform and clear-cut. He certainly defeats any oligarch who goes against him, like Khodorkovsky.

in order to deter [Putin] from starting a war in Ukraine?

Unknown, possibly unknowable. The second part of the answer shows that the oligarchs probably cannot coerce Putin. They might be able to influence him.

I am wondering if US, UK and EU have any sort of mechanism to incur serious financial consequences to Putin's oligarchs.

Consider the Magnitsky Act, or the Banco Delta Asia case. The West has powerful tools. If they are powerful enough would remain to be seen.

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  • Might also include info about sanctioning Putin himself and how Russia has responded to talk about that. reuters.com/world/europe/…
    – Joe W
    Jan 28 at 17:37
  • @JoeW, the OP had singled out oligarchs. Despite the talk, my feeling is that Putin would weather that storm to secure his legacy.
    – o.m.
    Jan 28 at 18:40
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    Yes, but it was more of a point that if even sanctions against Putin himself might not stop it then against others could have as little impact as well.
    – Joe W
    Jan 28 at 19:09
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The West, to which both the USA and the EU belong, can impose all possible sanctions on Russia, but that would not stop Russia from starting a war in Ukraine. Imposing sanctions before the war has started makes no sense, as you can't impose the same sanctions twice. Thus, the only opportunity for the West then would be to start a war against Russia, which would be fatal for the West, Russia and the whole world.

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  • Both EU and US don't need to impose the same sanctions twice in order to crash Russian economy without requiring more than a mild annoyance for the US and EU citizens. Hint: The "gas-dependent" EU imports no more than 30% of its natural gas from Russia.
    – fraxinus
    Jan 31 at 20:27
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    @fraxinus If you see every answer that doesn´t feat your point of wiev as russian propagand, that´s your problem. Looks like you didn´t even read what I wrote and the same for the question.
    – convert
    Jan 31 at 22:30
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    Preventive sanctions indeed would not stop the war; they might even instigate it. But the imminent threat of serious sanctions in case Russia starts the war might.
    – Zeus
    Feb 2 at 23:47
  • @Zeus Yes the threat of serious sanctions could be preventive, have not denined that.
    – convert
    Feb 3 at 11:40
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TL; DR: In theory possible, in fact counter-productive.

The long part:

In theory, Russia can be sanctioned down to the state of year 1985 (i.e. a complete default). Been there, done that. It will require some time, but it will succeed spectacularily.

Why not, then?

  1. The Ukraine itself. It still has grave ussues with important (from the EU/US viewpoint, at least) issues with the human rights, the rule of law, the democracy in general, the minority rights, etc, etc. Sorry to say it, but Ukraine is not profoundly different from Russia as of now. It gets better, but the steps are small and hessitant. Donbas, Lughansk and Crimea wouldn't be in the state they are now if Ukraine handled the matter better.

Deeply engaging with Ukrainian side of the conflict will send profoundly wrong signal to:

  • Ukrainian people (who are expected to fix their mess themselves)
  • the Ukrainian leadership (who are expected not to sabotage fixing the mess as they are used to)
  • some EU leaders (that are eager to convert their countries into small copies of Russia or Ukraine - yes, I am talking about you, Hungary, Poland and Czech republic and maybe Bulgaria)
  • the leaders and the people of countries trying to get into the EU without departing too much from their Russia/Ukraine-like state of affairs (e.g. Turkey, Serbia or North Macedonia).
  1. Russian leadership. Sanctioning it too far will force it into Chinese orbit (as if it already isn't, but worse). Some people in EU consider bordering with current Russia (culturally and economically interconnected with Europe) better than bordering with completely China-influenced Russia.

  2. Russian people - they will bear the main hardship of the sactions. Some of them will consolidate around the Leader, some of them will consider becoming a refugees (as if EU already doesn't have a refugee topic - including those from the ex-USSR).

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    And you call me russian propaganda? Some things you mentined in your answer, are also sometimes mentioned by exactly that russian propaganda, so could call you the same as well, but I don´t do it.
    – convert
    Jan 31 at 22:42
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There have been threats of sanctions and actions against Russia much more serious than this one to try and deter it from invading Ukraine (for instance, cutting off Russia from SWIFT). But since Russia has, in fact, no plan to attack its neighbor, the question is moot.

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