Will sanctions be enough to stop wealthy Russian oligarchs?

Russian President Vladimir Putin is an ex-KGB man. He knows money gets results. Which is why he’s made his supporters very rich – and the world’s politicians addicted to his largesse.

This raises the question: Are threats of sanctions against the Kremlin’s billionaires just hot air?

Crippling new sanctions have been imposed on the Russian financial sector this weekend. It includes a block on access to the global financial system for some banks – though not all.

Such retaliatory measures are flowing thick and fast.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared sanctions just hours after Putin sent troops on a “peacekeeping” mission into eastern Ukraine on Wednesday.

These sanctions were to be imposed on eight individuals on Russia’s national security council who are “aiding and abetting” the invasion, he said.

A day later, Morrison added a further 25 people to the list.

“This includes army commanders, deputy defence ministers and Russian mercenaries who have been responsible for the unprovoked and unacceptable aggression,” he said.

But the sanctions won’t take effect until the end of March.

“[These will] target their financial interests, it prevents them from travelling, it stops them from moving money around,” the Australian Prime Minister said.

“It stops them from coming and having holidays in countries such as Australia or going shopping in Harrods or doing the things of that nature and trying to live their lives as if they have nothing to do with the violence and bullying and intimidation that they are supporting from the Russian regime.”

Notably, Harrods is in the UK.

The British government, wracked by allegations of reliance on Moscow’s gravy train, was similarly fast to declare its hand.

“It will be the toughest sanction regime against Russia we have ever had,” UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said of her own government’s response.

Truss has herself been photographed at a glitzy function alongside an influential political donor whose husband is one of Putin’s former ministers.

Kompromat – the KGB's killer weapon

The Kremlin has deliberately grown such financial and social connections in recent decades says the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

“For more than a decade, ICIJ has tracked flows of money globally – stories that have commonly involved wealthy Russians with elite political connections. These projects included the Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers, FinCEN Files, and the Pandora Papers.

It’s no accident such strategic corruption can be tracked through the very heart of the world’s financial systems, says Ottawa University’s Professor Marc Tasse.

“Some elites pay respected professionals and businesses to open political doors, to lobby against sanctions, to fight legal battles and to launder money and reputations,” he writes. “In doing so, these institutions and individuals push the boundaries of the law and degrade the principles of our democracy.”

For Moscow, it’s a win-win scenario. It’s an old KGB spy tactic.

It’s about “honey traps”. Give someone what they want – but shouldn’t really have. Then hold it against them.

They called it kompromat – trapping public figures in blackmail traps.

For the Kremlin’s controlling billionaires, it’s “just business”.

Invasion enablers

It takes an army to allow oligarchs to influence international governments, financial systems and legal processes. This is of the white-collar kind. Not khaki-clad grunts.

“The people who don’t get mentioned … are the enablers devoted to helping the richest people in the world get richer and to pass on their wealth while avoiding or evading taxes,” Professor Tasse writes. “These enablers help criminals, and kleptocrats launder their ill-gotten gains.

“They may not be as wealthy as their clients, but they are paid millions to hide trillions.”

Real estate agents. Lawyers. Accountants.

These provide and operate anonymous shell companies, trusts and offshore accounts that hide dirty money.

“Some elites pay respected professionals and businesses to open political doors, to lobby against sanctions, to fight legal battles and to launder money and reputations,” Professor Tasse says. “In doing so, these institutions and individuals push the boundaries of the law and degrade the principles of our democracy.”

It’s not just about tax havens like the British Virgin Islands.

The Australian Banking Royal Commission revealed widespread blindness to dirty money among the “Big Five” banks. Transactions that triggered all the alarm bells for money laundering were ignored. Evidence of fraud and manipulation was exposed.

Identifying political influence, however, is an even more complicated matter.

Biting the hand that feeds …

Sanctions are something the Russians are familiar with.

“Well, we’re used to it,” says Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

On Wednesday, the UK specified three prominent Russian oligarchs and five banks to face prohibition after the invasion of Donbas was announced.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared his government was “targeting Russian economic interests as hard as we can”. His financial links, including a $300,000 tennis match with a former Russian minister’s wife, are a matter of public record.

Gennady Timchenko, and Igor and Boris Rotenberg, were the oligarchs specified. The banks are Rossiya, Promsvyazbank, IS Bank, GenBank, and the Black Sea Bank.

Australia went two banks further: It also hit the Russian State Development Bank and VEB.

But it’s the powers behind these financial institutions that funnel the money through complex webs.

“In recent years, reporting by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has looked closely at the offshore holdings of powerful associates close to Putin, including Timchenko and the Rotenbergs,” the ICIJ states.

It’s not the first time the Rotenbergs have been sanctioned by other countries.

The US targeted them in 2014 in response to the invasion of Crimea. Brothers Boris and Arkady Rotenberg bypassed the move by transferring their wealth to their sons. These were later also blocked by the US.

But the 2016 Panama Papers revealed they had used seven British Virgin Islands companies to bypass US sanctions to invest in a pipeline manufacturing company – and build an Italian villa for Arkady’s son, Igor.

Six years later, the UK has moved to block this particular loophole.

Venture capitalists

“What often distinguishes ordinary rich people from the oligarchy is that all oligarchs invest in wealth defence,” Professor Tasse says. “They use their power and wealth to amass more power and wealth, to lobby and to rig the rules around them.”

The ICIJ has identified five specific Russian oligarchs with particularly strong ties to Putin and deep financial interests in the West. They, and their families, may soon face international censure.

Yury Kovalchuk has been called Putin’s “personal banker”. He owns Putin’s favourite ski resort. He was sanctioned by the US in 2014 after Russia invaded Crimea. In 2016, shortly before Donald Trump took the presidency from Barack Obama, his nephew Kirill was also targeted.

Oleg Deripaska is a mining magnate and ally of President Putin. Several large transactions – with no identifiable purpose – were made through the British Virgin Islands between 2013 and 2015. This included $640 payments to itself.

“Banks’ reports of suspicious activity reflect the concerns of bank compliance officers and are not necessarily indicative of criminal conduct or other wrongdoing,” the ICIJ reports. “Deripaska denied laundering funds or committing financial crimes.”

Arkady Rotenberg is a former judo partner of Putin. His brother Boris and son Igor have already been sanctioned by the UK. Arkady secured the contract to build a natural gas pipeline to Europe. “Around the same time, three anonymous companies made huge payments into the Putin network,” records show.

“Two of the shadow companies, and likely all three, were controlled by Arkady Rotenberg, according to Panama Papers from 2016,” the ICIJ reports.

The money went to a British Virgin Islands-based company. The EU and US sanctioned Arkady in 2014.

Gennady Timchenko has already been named by UK PM Boris Johnson in a list of people to be sanctioned. He is an oil magnate with a longstanding personal friendship with Mr Putin. His company, Volga Resources, has a significant stake in Russia’s leading natural gas business. Several of his companies were registered in the British Virgin Islands.

Alisher Usmanov has been identified as a significant early investor in Facebook (whose parent company was recently renamed Meta).

“Usmanov has avoided major rounds of sanctions on wealthy Russians,” they state. “He appeared on a 2018 US Treasury Department list of Russian Oligarchs.

“British MPs recently called for sanctioning Usmanov over Russian political aggression.”

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