Ratna Omidvar is an independent Senator from Ontario. Lloyd Axworthy is former foreign minister of Canada. Fen Osler Hampson is chancellor’s professor at Carleton University.
Vladimir Putin’s attack against Ukraine, with the clear objective of seizing and controlling the entire country, has left NATO and Western governments reeling. There have been howls of protest from Westminster, the Oval Office, the West Block here in Ottawa and points beyond. A concerted effort is now underway to put in place a new series of sanctions to freeze the assets of Mr. Putin’s immediate circle of oligarchs, prevent further trade with Russia and put Russia’s leaders and legislators in notice that they are unwelcome guests if they deign to step outside their country.
But is this enough? Will Mr. Putin be deterred from further incursions or from attacking countries such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which he clearly believes also belong to Russia? In a cruel riff on that old nursery rhyme, Mr. Putin and his army are playing the role of the cavaliers in a treacherous move to put Humpty Dumpty – the former Soviet Union – back together again.
Mr. Putin is on a mission to consolidate his place in history like Russia’s emperor, Peter the Great. He ended Sweden’s supremacy in the Baltic and extended the Russian empire to the Sea of Azov, in order to put it into the top tier of the European powers. But unlike Peter the Great, who was a cultured modernizer and brought the Enlightenment and Western science to Russia, Mr. Putin is a colourless thug who gives a new 21st century meaning to Hannah Arendt’s term “the banality of evil.”
The current plate of sanctions alone will do little to thwart Mr. Putin’s plans or deter future attacks. He and his circle of oligarchs know that frozen assets can be unfrozen at some point in the future when the dust the settles and NATO, if it still exists, accommodate themselves to Europe’s harsh new reality.
The United States and its NATO allies are not going to come to Ukraine’s defence with their military forces. Although Russian banks are also now on the sanctions list, Europeans who have grown all too dependent on Russian oil and gas are not going to impose full-blown trade sanctions because it would have disastrous consequences for them too. They are also unlikely to exclude Russia from SWIFT, the global financial messaging system, for the same reason. Russia would cut off its natural gas exports in retaliation for non-payment.
Presented with few options, Western countries must get creative and find ways to hit Mr. Putin where it really hurts. Mr. Putin’s power and personal wealth, conservatively estimated to be roughly $250-billion with much of it hidden in shell companies and offshore accounts, rests on the complicity of a small group of financial oligarchs who themselves have become billionaires with his backing and political support.
The oligarchs will certainly feel the pain after the latest round of sanctions, but they need to know that they will feel much more pain if they can be separated permanently from their fortunes, their private yachts and their palatial homes abroad.
There is no obvious equivalent response to the mayhem and pain Mr. Putin is inflicting on the Ukrainian people short of military retaliation by NATO forces, which would almost certainly lead to the Third World War – an outcome nobody wants. But we can punish Mr. Putin and his confederates not just by freezing their wealth, but seizing it and making them pay for this heinous crime. The proceeds could then be turned over to help the Ukrainian people and the inevitable wave of refugees.
The Frozen Assets Repurposing Act currently before the Canadian Senate would give the government the requisite tools to pursue such a course of action if passed. At the very least, it would send a strong message to Mr. Putin that we have the power to hold him and his cronies to personal account by giving our government the authority to repurpose their wealth in a legal and transparent way. Were our government to take such bold action, other Western countries might be inspired to follow our lead.
If we can get Russia’s oligarchs to pull their support of Mr. Putin as a result of being hit where it really hurts, we will have hit the mark. This would help break Mr. Putin’s compact with his cronies, where one hand greases the other. If there is no grease left, then the arrangement will die, which would be good for Ukraine and other democracies.
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