The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Washington is still shying away from punishing Putin’s closest cronies. Why?

Law enforcement officers clash with participants during a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, on Jan. 23. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

MOSCOW — Few topics rattle the Kremlin quite as much as Western sanctions targeting its officials and oligarchs. For all its nationalistic posturing, the regime of Vladimir Putin — as corrupt as it is authoritarian — depends on maintaining access to Western countries, banks and financial markets for its key cronies.

It is hardly a secret that some of the most prized real estate in New York City, London and Miami is owned by those with Kremlin connections. Private Russian holdings abroad are estimated at $800 billion to $1.3 trillion — with much of this money likely linked to Putin himself. The Panama Papers, a large-scale journalistic investigation based on leaked documents, traced $2 billion of offshore accounts back to Putin’s cronies — probably only the small tip of a very large iceberg.

It is no surprise, then, that international efforts to bring accountability for human rights abusers through targeted visa bans and asset freezes elicit furious reactions from Russian officials. Kremlin countermeasures against those who advocate such sanctions have ranged from bogus Interpol warrants to poisoning by chemical weapons.

This week, calls for targeted international sanctions by Russian citizens was publicly equated with “treason” by no less than Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service and a close Putin confidant. “This is betrayal of one’s country and one’s people,” Naryshkin declared. It is a long-standing habit of authoritarian regimes to equate themselves with the countries they misrule.

Vladimir Solovyev, the Kremlin’s leading TV propagandist, who was conducting the interview, helpfully provided the names of the “traitors” Naryshkin was referring to: Vladimir Milov and Leonid Volkov, two close associates of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and the author of this article. Solovyev himself has a vested interest: The man who has made it his trade to spew daily hatred against Western democracies appears to own two luxury villas on Lake Como in Northern Italy, according to documents obtained by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. (In a newspaper interview, Solovyev later confirmed owning a house in Italy.)

The Kremlin’s attitude is not new. What is puzzling is the continued reluctance of the U.S. administration to push back against Putin’s regime using the tools at its disposal — namely, the Magnitsky Act and the Global Magnitsky Act, both designed for targeted sanctions on human rights abusers, and the latter also for conduits of corruption. The Biden administration has designated countering corruption “a core United States national security interest” and has taken steps to target individuals in places ranging from Ukraine to Namibia. At the same time, it has shown a surprising reluctance to use sanctions where they would work most effectively.

So far Washington has responded to the Kremlin’s continued aggressiveness with Cold War-era measures such as expulsions of diplomats (with more announced again this week). Yet the most effective instrument in its toolbox remains largely unused. In January, after Navalny was arrested, his associates proposed sanctioning a number of top regime officials and oligarchs. Yet to this day most of the people they named remain free to roam both sides of Atlantic. Shortly before his arrest, Navalny himself said that “sanctions aren’t working because the West has refrained from sanctioning the people with the money.”

One possible explanation emerged in a recent report in Politico. Citing senior administration officials, the article suggests that the White House has refrained from using Magnitsky sanctions to their full extent because of the risk of “jeopardizing potential cooperation” with the Kremlin and because President Biden “wants to give Putin time to prove whether he can be a constructive partner.” Apparently some administration officials also fear that the fall of the Putin regime could prove “destabilizing.”

This reasoning is perplexing. First, the tens of thousands of Russians who have been demonstrating on the streets against Putin’s rule are not fanatics or rabid nationalists but urban (and mostly young) middle-class citizens who want Russia to become a modern democratic nation. Second, the pointlessness of hopes for a new “reset” with the Kremlin has been made clear by the policies of Biden’s predecessors. A tyrant whose repression of his own people is rivaled only by his aggression toward others cannot be a “constructive partner.”

Targeted sanctions provide personal accountability for those who break the rules of civilized society at home while enjoying its benefits abroad. They do so without punishing the general population (the main defect of countrywide sanctions of the previous eras). No less importantly, the blacklisting of abusers will end the perverse spectacle of Western democracies in effect enabling regimes that trample on the very values the West claims to hold dear. Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition leader who was slain in front of the Kremlin in 2015, called the Magnitsky Act “the most pro-Russian law in the history of any foreign parliament” as it “finally ends the impunity for those who violate the rights and steal the money of Russian citizens.”

Western policymakers have a powerful and effective tool at their disposal. It is time they began using it properly.