Give Russia’s money to Ukraine

The costs of supporting Ukraine in its entirely defensive war against Russia are escalating.

Kyiv needs more financial resources, munitions, and diplomatic support as it resists Vladimir Putin’s aggression. But the challenges are real. U.S. munition stockpiles are running low, and some weapons systems must be prioritized in reserve for a possible war with China. At the same time, Republicans in Congress remain divided over whether to authorize a new allotment of $60 billion in financial support for Kyiv. And while the European Union is slowly ramping up its support for Ukraine, that support remains insufficient. The United States must become more creative in searching for alternative means of supporting Ukraine.

The cause for hope is real. As it moves to a more defensive strategy supported by new weapons systems, such as F-16 fighter jets, Ukraine can consolidate its position and impose punitive losses on Russian forces. But Ukraine needs funding.

Fortunately, there’s an untapped opportunity waiting in the wings. The West should provide Ukraine with some or all of the nearly $300 billion in assets that have been seized since Russia’s February 2022 invasion. Held by Russian oligarchs in Western jurisdictions, these assets include bank accounts, business interests, and physical assets such as superyachts and private jets. When parking these often ill-gotten assets in the West, those who did so accepted that they were subject to the rule of law in those nations. And with asset freezes authorized by various parliaments and law enforcement authorities, the legal basis for any asset disbursement is clear.

The possibility of just this asset transfer has been discussed by Western governments. Unfortunately, the process of enacting any actual transfers has failed to make progress. The European Union is the challenge. Germany fears that transfers of seized assets will provoke Russian retaliation. France fears oligarchs viewing France as a dangerous place to park their yachts once the war in Ukraine is concluded and sanctions eventually lifted. Hungary’s Viktor Orban is a puppet for Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. Others fear disruption to the international banking system.

These are all weak excuses for inaction. For both economic and legal reasons, the U.S. dollar will remain the dominant international reserve currency of choice for the foreseeable future. Similarly, France should adopt the British government’s belated understanding that the economic benefits of opening one’s doors to Russian money are far outweighed by the moral and strategic costs of doing so. And why did the West suddenly decide to become so submissive in the face of Russian threats?

Why, after all, when we have 44 years of Cold War experience proving that Russia can be deterred at the intersection of NATO credibility (which, yes, remains lacking due to continued European freeloading), candor, and nuclear overmatch? Putin is a child of the Cold War. While he deeply mourns the Soviet Union’s defeat, he is no idiot. Facing the West, Putin’s long-standing records show a predilection for deception, blackmail, creative violence, assassination, and the cultivation of corruption over overt military challenge. He recognizes that a nuclear showdown with the West would result in terrible costs for all sides and a decisive Russian defeat. Notwithstanding Dmitry Medvedev’s bluster, Russia would not start either a conventional or a nuclear war over asset transfers to Ukraine.

The exigent facts are not in question.

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Two years ago, Russia started an utterly unjustifiable war against Ukraine. It did so in pursuit of a nakedly imperialist agenda to dominate not just Ukraine but also the Baltic states. It did so to intimidate and politically neuter all periphery democracies. It is Putin, not the West, that has invited the loss of assets that his cronies might now suffer. That’s because it is Putin, not the West, that is wreaking havoc on the Ukrainian people. And if the West is incapable even of enabling Ukraine to use oligarchic wealth to protect its people and political sovereignty, that will say much more about the West than it does about Putin’s threats.

While its long-term trajectory is decidedly negative, Russia’s economy has thus far withstood the worst of Western sanctions. This has been a point of public pride for Putin and his inner circle. In turn, even those more timid elements in the West should find the confidence to support asset transfers to Ukraine. Putin, after all, has assured us that such trifling sanctions do not concern him.

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