The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Seize, don’t just freeze, Putin’s billions

Displaced Ukrainians after arriving by train in Lviv, Ukraine, on March 3. (Jonathan Alpeyrie/Bloomberg)
5 min

Michael Doyle is a professor at Columbia University and senior fellow of the Carnegie Council, where he directs its refugee and migration project. Dorothea Koehn is a master’s of international affairs candidate at Columbia and a research fellow at the Carnegie Council. Janine Prantl is a postgraduate legal fellow for the Global Strategic Litigation Council for Refugee Rights.

In response to the aggression against Ukraine, the United States, the European Union and democratic states across the globe (even banker-friendly Switzerland) have frozen the assets of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his oligarchic cronies. This has clearly failed to halt the onslaught. The question is what to do now.

The answer is, it is time to seize the frozen assets and use them to support humanitarian aid in Ukraine and the more than 1 million Ukrainians forced to flee as refugees. If and when Ukraine is freed from Russian occupation, any remaining funds can be used to help rebuild the country. In the meantime, the seizure would relieve the European taxpayers who will pay to support the refugees and punish the responsible aggressors.

The sums involved are potentially enormous. Various economists have estimated Putin’s wealth between $100 billion and $200 billion — largely held in offshore accounts and properties outside of Russia, and therefore potentially subject to seizure.

But he is not the only Russian whose assets are vulnerable. The National Bureau of Economic Research estimated in a 2017 paper that the amount of Russian wealth held outside the country was about $800 billion — roughly equal to the total wealth of all Russians inside Russia. The scale of this financial diaspora was corroborated by the 2021 Pandora Papers, which identified 4,400 Russians with stakes in offshore companies. Forty-six of them were identified as oligarchs, including oil magnate and close Putin associate Gennady Timchenko, who was sanctioned by the United Kingdom last week. Seizing the assets of Putin’s supporters among these wealthy and well-connected Russians could be a game changer.

The legal basis for seizure is firmer than many might guess. Relying on executive powers under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, President Biden issued an executive order last month seizing about $7 billion that the Afghan central bank had deposited in the Federal Reserve of New York. The administration plans to divide these assets: half for families of 9/11 victims and half for humanitarian and other assistance in Afghanistan.

The Magnitsky Act authorizes the U.S. government to freeze the assets of any foreigners, anywhere in the world, accused of human rights violations under international law. Canada, which has a similar Magnitsky Act, is considering a further step: A bill (S-217) before the Canadian Parliament would authorize Canadian courts to confiscate the frozen assets and redistribute them to address humanitarian needs of people displaced by the violations. In Europe, where the E.U. provides a legal basis for freezing assets of those who violate human rights, member states have taken individual action: In 2017, a Spanish judge ordered the seizure of properties owned by an uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a money-laundering case.

We have surveyed possible legal authorizations. The precedents include U.N. Security Council seizure of funds held by Iraq’s government, as a response to unlawful occupation of Kuwait — but that method is not available in the current crisis, since Russia has veto power in the Security Council. Another route would seem to be through the International Court of Justice, where Ukraine has instituted proceedings against Russia on the basis of the genocide convention. But the ICJ, which settles disputes between states, does not issue judgments against individuals and has no enforcement mechanism. A better venue might be the International Criminal Court, which pursues crimes perpetrated by individuals. Though neither Russia nor Ukraine is a party to the ICC, Ukraine has declared it would accept the court’s jurisdiction, and the ICC prosecutor has announced his intent to start an investigation.

Most promising are recent cases in Europe under “universal jurisdiction,” which allows for prosecution of international crimes in domestic courts no matter where or by whom they were committed. Noteworthy decisions include the recent conviction in Koblenz, Germany, of a high-ranking Syrian official for torture committed in Syria; he was sentenced to life in a German prison.

Similarly, courts in other countries can be mobilized to hold Putin and his allies culpable for the Ukrainian aggression and the consequent war crimes. Democratic states do not have the Russian aggressors in custody, but we can confiscate their overseas wealth, sending a clear message that their actions are not cost-free.

Once seized, the funds from Putin and his fellow oligarchs could be allocated to the E.U. to fund its newly proposed refugee assistance facility, which offers countries 10,000 euros for each refugee to assist in temporary settlement. Alternatively, some could be allocated to the U.N. refugee agency.

Seizure of assets should be conducted respecting principles of international law. There would need to be a review process so oligarchs listed for sanctions could appeal their status. Before actual seizure, provision should be made for a swift hearing in case intelligence agencies might have misestimated an oligarch’s role as a Putin enabler.

NATO has ruled out a military response. Economic sanctions, wielded well, can not only punish and raise the cost of continuing aggression but sustain and support the victims. It is time to take this next step.