Russia’s oligarchy rot highlights a far wider problem.

There has been much debate in recent weeks by Western media commentators regarding the true motivation behind Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Putin, himself, points to NATO expansion since the collapse of the Soviet Union as a palpable threat to Russian sovereignty. The tipping point however came with Putin’s claims of ‘genocide’ perpetrated against the Russian-speaking population living in the disputed Donbass region (south-eastern Ukraine) by the Ukranian government. This, he claims warrants ‘special military operations’ within not only Luhansk and Dontesk by Russian forces but, as we have since seen, further afield within Ukraine. It is important to point out – as international lawyers representing Ukraine at the world court in The Hague have done – that no proof thus far has been proffered by Russia to back up its allegations of genocide. Indeed, if Russia does have proof, why has it not formally brought claims before the United Nations? In fact, the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) has since ordered Russia to cease it’s military operations in Ukraine immediately (ABC News 2022). There are of course, rare notable instances of political commentators in the West such as Profs. Noam Chomsky and John Mearsheimer who assert that in considering Ukraine for possible NATO membership the West has crossed what was clearly a red line for Russia. Even if this is indeed the case, the question remains: why the need to paint the Ukrainian government as neo-Nazis?

If anything, it seems like a case of ‘the pot calling the kettle black’ with news emerging in the last week of alleged war crimes perpetrated by the Russian forces, including the targeting of residential areas, killing hundreds of civilians, destroying homes and schools (Wall Street Journal 2022). Those living in cities under siege are often left without power, food, water or medicine. While the indiscriminate shelling of populated areas may not technically amount to genocide, it is, at the very least, a war crime: terrorism on a grand scale. The invasion itself, unjustified as it is, must be considered a ‘crime against peace’.

Putin is no idealogue, but Aleksandr Dugin is.

Russian anti-humanist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin.

While Putin is the clearly the aggressor in this war, he is not the brains behind it. Meet philosopher Aleksandr Dugin – the man who wants to see liberalism and humanism abolished (or at the very least cordoned off from ‘Eurasia’). To call Dugin a neo-Fascist is an oversimplification. He borrows from the extremes of the Left and the Right as he pleases, in order to fight his true enemy: liberalism. According to Lynch (2018), Dugin wants to turn back the clock to pre-Enlightenment times: ‘this means restoring the Russian Empire of the czarist era; for an Islamic extremist it means restoring the caliphate; and for an American white supremacist it means the restoration of systemic racism and the creation of an ethno-state.’ Lynch further asserts that,

According to Dugin, concepts like democracy, human rights, individualism and so on are not universal but uniquely Western values and should not be encouraged or pushed on other cultures, civilizations or societies.

Tolstoy and McCaffray (2015) note that Dugin’s ‘crowning achievement is to have become the spokesman for a systematic anti-liberalism that has allowed Vladimir Putin to advance not as an unprincipled tyrant but as the representative of an international philosophy whose writ stretches from the backwaters of Russia to the capitals of Europe.’

Iron-clad rules frequently rust

While Putin may seem to be inspired by Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin’s ‘neo-Fascist’ playbook, their alignment is more likely a marriage of convenience. Political and human-rights activist Bill Browder (often described as Putin’s ‘No.1 Enemy’) has many years experience as a financier operating in post-Cold War Russia, and with Putin personally. In 2012, he was instrumental in getting the Magnitsky Act passed into law in the U.S.: legislation that authorizes the U.S. government to freeze the assets of human-rights abusers, revoke their visas and make it illegal for nationals to do business with them. Today, Browder dedicates himself to getting the Act passed into law in other countries around the world. His efforts have been, and continue to be, crucial to the West’s response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.

Browder alleges that Putin has long since been enabling the siphoning off of state funds into the pocket of those ‘Russian oligarchs’ that we keep hearing about in the news. They, in return, hold funds on Putin’s behalf (a 50/50 cut) in stable ‘rule of law’ countries offshore. According to Browder, waging war against Ukraine is an attempt by Putin to unify Russia against an enemy that simply isn’t out there (sound familiar?), and in doing so, deflect attention from his own despotism, systemic corruption within the state and the rorting of the Russian economy.

The post-Cold War context that brought Putin and Browder, at first, together and then apart, is presented in this TEDxTalk.

Oligarchs see the world as their ‘own personal plaything.’

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders argued in an op-ed piece published in The Guardian (2018) that the oligarch problem is by no means limited to Russia. He writes: ‘All around the world, in Europe, in Russia, in the Middle East, in Asia and elsewhere we are seeing movements led by demagogues who exploit people’s fears, prejudices and grievances to achieve and hold on to power.’ Further:

At a time of massive wealth and income inequality, when the world’s top 1% now owns more wealth than the bottom 99%, we are seeing the rise of a new authoritarian axis.

While these regimes may differ in some respects, they share key attributes: hostility toward democratic norms, antagonism toward a free press, intolerance toward ethnic and religious minorities, and a belief that government should benefit their own selfish financial interests. These leaders are also deeply connected to a network of multi-billionaire oligarchs who see the world as their economic plaything. – U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (2018)

Sanders maintains that many authoritarian regimes have, in recent years, been emboldened by the rise (and policies) of former U.S. President Donald Trump: ‘a billionaire president who, in an unprecedented way, [had] blatantly embedded his own economic interests and those of his cronies into the policies of government.’ In the case of Trump and Putin, the feeling is mutual, with Trump making no secret of his deep admiration for the Russian President.

Given that the interdependence of Putin and his oligarch cronies has received so much press over the last few weeks, it would be remiss of democratic nations the world over to ignore how offshore ‘wealth management’ masks the true extent of global inequality. Alstadsæter Johannesen and Zucman (2018) estimate that 10% of the world’s GDP is hidden offshore, and that in Russia, ‘the vast majority of wealth at the top is held offshore’ (p.89).

Forensic Accounting and greater legal capacities are needed to find and freeze the Oligarch’s ill-gotten gains

Speaking on the BBC’s Context program (2022) Uriel Epshtein, executive director of the Renew Democracy Intiative (RDI), emphasized the need to rethink how sanctions target those who enable and finance Putin’s war. At the moment, in order for an entity to be sanctioned it must be owned or controlled by the sanctioned person. Given that oligarchs are so adept at laundering their money, sanctioning them personally might only freeze a small fraction of their wealth. A rethink of how sanctions target oligarchs is needed:

When we think of sanctions…we think of sanctioned individuals, but what we really should be thinking about is sanctioned assets: Sanctioned money. For example, if you are a Russian oligarch who has stolen billions of dollars from the Russian people, then what we’re actually doing is we’re not necessarily sanctioning you ‘Mr. Oligarch,’ what we’re doing is we’re sanctioning the billions of dollars that you’ve stolen. And, therefore, we need to also then invest in the forensic accounting and legal capacities to follow that money through. And this is something that is certainly possible.

Endnote:

I am no political or military analyst. I have however, as part of my PhD research, reviewed the scholarly literature regarding the psychology of motivation. Understanding how motivation works can help make sense out of the, at times, irrational or seemingly paradoxical behaviours of others and ourselves. I can therefore appreciate why there is currently so much conjecture about Mr. Putin’s possible motivations and true intentions. Any insights gained must go some way to guiding effective and measured responses to his provocations.

Russia forces must ceasefire and withdraw from sovereign Ukrainian territory immediately. Further, a dedicated international criminal tribunal should be established so that Mr Putin and others responsible for the war crimes being committed during this illegal and unprovoked war can be held accountable.

Follow the links below to sign:

(a) the petition to demand that Russia ends the aggression against Ukraine immediately, protects civilians and respects international law (Your full name, email address and location will not be disclosed to the recipient of the petition) and

(b) the petition calling for the establishment of an independent Nuremburg-style trial of Vladimyr Putin for warcrimes.

https://www.amnesty.org/en/petition/russia-stop-the-aggression-and-protect-civilians-in-ukraine/

References:

Electronic & Print media:

ABC News (2022), ‘Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy calls on US to do more in Congress address, World Court orders Russia to halt invasion.’ ABC News, Mar. 17. Available online: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-03-17/zelenskyy-addresses-us-congress/100916250 (accessed 17th March).

Al Jazeera (2022), ‘”Smells of genocide”: How Putin justifies Russia’s war in Ukraine.’ Al Jazeera, Mar. 9.
Available online: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/9/smells-of-genocide-how-putin-justifies-russias-war-in-ukraine (accessed 10th March).

Alstadsæter, A., Johannesen, N., and Zucman, G. (2018), ‘Who owns the wealth in tax havens? Macro evidence and implications for global inequality’ Journal of Public Economics 162, (89-100). Available online: https://gabriel-zucman.eu/files/AJZ2018.pdf (accessed 16th March).

Armitage, R. (2022), ‘Is Vladimir Putin secretly rich? Why sanctioning Russia’s leader over invading Ukraine is so tricky.’ ABC News (online), Feb, 26. Available online: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-02-26/despite-ukraine-invasion-putins-rumoured-wealth-may-be-untouched/100859992 (accessed 10th March).

Context. (2022) [TV Programme] BBC, 22 March (accessed 23 March).

Cornell University Press (2011), Russia on the Edge: Imagined Geographies and Post-Soviet Identity by Edith W. Clowes [Website: book blurb]. Available online: https://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu (accessed March 23rd).

Dugin, A.(2013), ‘The world needs to understand Putin: The Russian leader is conservative and is no friend to a tired status quo, writes Alexandr Dugin.’ Financial Times, 13 March. Available online: https://www.ft.com/content/67fa00d2-874b-11e2-9dd7-00144feabdc0 (accessed March 23rd).

Gude, K. (2017), ‘Russia’s 5th Column: President Donald Trump and European far-right parties backed by Russia are following the same playbook to advance Russia’s interests.’ Center for American Progress, Mar 15. Available online: https://www.americanprogress.org/article/russias-5th-column/ (accessed 17th March).

Lynch, C. (2018), ‘Did philosopher Alexander Dugin, aka “Putin’s brain,” shape the 2016 election?: Alexander Dugin wants a left-right alliance against liberalism — and urged Russia to meddle in Western politics.’ Salon, May 5. Available online:
https://www.salon.com/2018/05/05/did-philosopher-alexander-dugin-aka-putins-brain-shape-the-2016-election/ (accessed 19th March).

Michel, C (2022), ‘Moscow’s demands were always about more than the security arrangements in Ukraine. The West can’t say we weren’t warned.’, nbcnews.com, Feb. 24. Available online: https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/why-does-russia-want-invade-ukraine-ask-putin-ncna1288996 (accessed 10 March).

Rand, P. (2020), ‘Vladimir Putin’s No. 1 Enemy, with Bill Browder (Ep. 39): What turned a powerful businessman into an international advocate for human rights.’ uchicago news [Podcast and transcript], Jan. 27. Available online: https://news.uchicago.edu/big-brains-podcast-vladimir-putins-no-1-enemy-bill-browder (accessed 10th March).

‘Roman Abramovich’s Dirty Money.’ Panorama (2022) [TV Programme] BBC, 14 March (accessed 14th March).

Sanders, B. (2018), ‘A new authoritarian axis demands an international progressive front’ The Guardian, Sept. 13. Available online: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/ng-interactive/2018/sep/13/bernie-sanders-international-progressive-front (accessed 16th March).

UN (United Nations) News, (2022), ‘Russia reduced Genocide Convention ‘to confetti’, Ukraine tells world court.’ UN News: Global perspective Human stories, Mar. 7. Available online: https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/03/1113402 (accessed 10th March).

Tolstoy, A., & McCaffray, E. (2015), ‘Mind Games: Alexander Dugin and Russia’s War of Ideas.’ World Affairs, 177(6), 25–30. Available online https://www.jstor.org/stable/43555266 (accessed 23rd March).

Zinets, N. (2022), ‘U.S. condemns “barbaric” attack on innocents at Ukraine children’s hospital.’ reuters.com, Mar. 10. Available online: https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russia-promises-silence-ukrainians-flee-battered-cities-2022-03-09/ (accessed 10th March).

Videos:

‘Browder on Putin: When You Believe Your Time Is Almost Up, You Start a War.’ Amanpour and Company (2022), [TV Programme] PBS Network, 1 March. Available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3y7XBQG5TzM (accessed 10th March).

‘How I figured out the Achilles heel of Vladimir Putin | William Browder.’ TEDxBerlin (2018),
[Video file] TEDxTalks, 15 August. Available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BT254smRufA (accessed 10th March).

‘Visual Analysis: Ukrainian Civilians Hit by Russia’s Troops Across the Country.’ Wall Street Journal (2022) [Video file] WSJ, 11 March. Available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Ra3xKE0xpU (accessed 11th March).