Putin's greatest weakness may be located on US shores

Putin's greatest weakness may be located on US shores
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Russia is usually considered a strong state. Therefore, the international community has let it get away with military aggression in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, with only limited sanctions.

But the Kremlin is actually quite vulnerable. Since he came to power in 2000, President Vladimir Putin has carried out a far-reaching deinstitutionalization, subordinating the whole state machinery, including the courts, to the Kremlin’s “vertical of power” and “dictatorship of law.”

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As a result, contemporary Russia does not have any real property rights. Therefore, all wealthy Russians, including Putin and his cronies, keep their money abroad. In a recent paper, Thomas Piketty and his co-authors estimated Russian offshore wealth at about $800 billion in 2015.

 

The sum of all capital outflows identified by the International Monetary Fund during the last quarter-century is $750 billion. This is a vast fortune, held by private Russians abroad. Some of it belongs to oligarchs, but much belongs to Putin and his cronies.

On March 20, 2014, two days after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the United States did something unprecedented. It sanctioned “members of the inner circle,” namely Putin’s personal friends Gennady Timchenko, Arkady Rotenberg, Boris Rotenberg and Yuri Kovalchuk and ordered their assets to be frozen.

They were sanctioned “because each is controlled by, has acted for or on behalf of, or has provided material or other support to, a senior Russian government official,” i.e., Vladimir Putin. The European Union sanctioned Arkady Rotenberg, Yuri Kovalchuk and Nikolai Shamalov. Putin got very upset in public, indicating that this action had considerable effect.

But only Italy has carried out a high-profile freezing of assets, seizing Arkady Rotenberg’s real estate worth some $36 million. Much of the money laundered from Russia passes through Cyprus, the British Virgin Islands and Cayman Islands, but it does not stay there.

These small islands do not have the capacity to absorb such large investments. Russian crony investments require not only secure property rights and complete secrecy, but also volume.

Most of Europe does not allow anonymous investments and demands to know the beneficiary owners; the big exceptions are territories with Anglo-Saxon law. The two biggest offshore havens with great capacity to receive anonymous investment are the United States and the United Kingdom.

In May 2016, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron organized a big international conference to oppose anonymous ownership, presumably because of sheer embarrassment. He lamented that 99,000 buildings in the United Kingdom had anonymous owners.

James Nickerson of The New Statesman cited the assessment that anonymous offshore companies own 36,000 properties in London at an estimated value of $156 billion. Twenty-nine countries, primarily EU countries, had already revealed the beneficial owners of all assets, and 11 countries agreed to join them.

The United States, by contrast, made no such commitment. In 2012, the New York Times reported that one single building in Wilmington, Del., harbored no less than 285,000 legal entities, but nothing has been done to rein in this dubious practice.

British journalist Oliver Bullough noted: “Offshore often happens right at home. The laws in Delaware and Nevada offer companies similar benefits as the laws in the British Virgin Islands. In fact … it is far easier to set up a corporate structure without being asked to confirm one’s identity in the United States than it is in notorious tax havens, like the Cayman Islands, Jersey or the Isle of Man.”

He continued: “Almost one-third of top-end property purchases in America’s biggest cities are suspect, according to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, the body at the Treasury Department.” While “China was the leading investor in real estate in the United States by the end of 2015, with $350 billion in related investments and holdings,” Russia is high up, but the United States has no numbers.

Not only is anonymous ownership allowed in the U.S., but so too are anonymous money transfers. U.S. banks have become strictly regulated, and in December 2016, the Wall Street Journal revealed that under the “attorney-client privilege … tens of billions of dollars every year move through opaque law-firm bank accounts that create a gap in U.S. money-laundering defenses.”

Financial Times quoted Alex Cobham, chief executive of Tax Justice Network, a campaign group, stating that the United States was “the elephant in the room … If you were going to produce a tax haven blacklist with only one member, it wouldn’t be a small Caribbean island — it would be tax haven USA.”

The U.S. Treasury is catching up. On Aug. 22 its Financial Crimes Enforcement Network ordered “U.S. title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind shell companies used to pay for high-end residential real estate in seven metropolitan areas,” including Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, New York and Los Angeles, the favorite Russian destinations. They start at $1 million in South Florida. These checks focus on cash and wire transfer payments.

The United States can win the hybrid war against Russian President Vladimir Putin by peaceful means at home.

Anders Åslund is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. He also teaches at Georgetown University. He specializes in economic policy in Russia, Ukraine and East Europe. Aslund is writing a book on Russia’s crony capitalism.