It's time to treat Vladimir Putin like the crime boss he is: Go after his money.
- By Michael WeissMichael Weiss is the editor in chief of the Interpreter, an online journal that translates and analyzes Russian media. Follow him on Twitter: @michaeldweiss.
Since the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 by Russian-backed and Russian intelligence-led separatists in Ukraine, Westerners have learned a great deal about Vladimir Putin and the regime he has built and overseen, uninterrupted, for 15 years. They’ve learned that an international tragedy involving the murder of hundreds of innocents weighs not at all upon the mind of the KGB czar. Russians had long grown accustomed to this fact, thanks to Putin’s handling of the Kursk submarine disaster and the Beslan and Nord-Ost (aka Moscow theater) hostage crises, all episodes in which the president’s mendacity, incompetence, and cold indifference to human life necessarily meant that more of it had to be squandered. But now Americans and Europeans have definitive proof of what motivates a Soviet-style post-Soviet dictator when it comes to the well-being of their citizens, too. An important lesson should be learned from this affair.
Last week, Putin’s wholly owned guerrilla subsidiary in Ukraine blew 298 civilians out of the sky, looted the belongings of the victims, let their cadavers rot for days in the hot summer sun, then violently obstructed OSCE monitors from inspecting the carnage. Talk of a forensic "investigation" at this point is just that — talk. Furthermore, according to U.S. intelligence, the Kremlin was evidently so pleased with this performance that it has dispatched more materiel to the culprits in eastern Ukraine. This new hardware includes rocket launchers, light arms, and tanks — only adding to the sophisticated weapons already sent in to aid the rebel cause. There are "indications," U.S. officials say, that advanced Russian anti-aircraft systems — such as vehicle-mounted Buk (or SA-11) missile launchers, which defense and aviation analysts agree were responsible for downing MH17 — had been moved into eastern Ukraine from Russia and then back to the Motherland following the immolation of the airliner. The West has lately discovered something about Putin that Marina Litvinenko did eight years ago: his penchant for covering up his worst crimes.
"Without a doubt, the state over whose territory this happened bears the responsibility for this frightful tragedy," Putin said, neglecting to mention that he considers the relevant territory part of Novorossiya, his revanchist concept of Russia’s "near abroad" brought even nearer. At a meeting of Russia’s Security Council on July 22, the first words out of Putin’s mouth after "Good morning, colleagues" were: "Today we will consider the fundamental issues of maintaining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of this country" — the same two fundamental issues he has so thoroughly trampled in his next-door neighbor by annexing Crimea and invading Luhansk and Donetsk.
He also laughably denies that he is master and patron of the anti-Kiev insurgency, even when faced with overwhelming evidence. It was further disclosed by U.S. intelligence that Russian, not Ukrainian, territory is being used to host the separatists’ very own Fort Bragg. Satellite imagery released by the United States has located what the Washington Post has termed a "sprawling Russian military installation near the city of Rostov," which acts as both the training ground and munitions clearinghouse for the irredentists. If Russia had satellite footage showing the Pentagon instructing Quebecois on how to steer an Abrams tank at a U.S. military installation in northern Maine, I am sure Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia Today would be the first to let us know about it.
The Kremlin has spent years accusing the United States and its European allies of arming and facilitating "terrorists" in Syria. So let’s look at whom it has been arming and facilitating in Ukraine. Col. Igor Strelkov, the self-styled "commander-in-chief" of the self-styled "Donetsk People’s Republic" (DPR), first claimed credit for shooting down what he believed to be a Ukrainian cargo plane on July 17. He had good cause to believe as much, given that his forces had downed one before, killing more than 30 Ukrainian servicemen on board. "We warned them — don’t fly in ‘our sky,’" Strelkov said, before realizing that "they" were AIDS scientists and Dutch babies. On the Russian social media platform VKontakte, in a forum he has used for months to disseminate his communiques, Strelkov even identified the rough location from which the missile or missiles are now thought to have been fired: the city of Torez, in the Donetsk region. This happens to be one of two locations (the other is Snezhnoye) where a Buk missile system has since been video-recorded and geolocated being driven around, well after MH17 crashed into a field.
Strelkov’s claim of responsibility was subsequently confirmed by other separatists who were then cited throughout the state-owned Russian press. It was only repudiated as the idle chatter of overzealous fellow travelers once it was decided in both Moscow and Donetsk that, actually, the Ukrainian military and the CIA were the ones responsible for this atrocity and were now shamefully trying to pin the rap on the poor, besieged Motherland. Strelkov has since alleged that MH17 had been filled with lifeless bodies before it fell from the sky — this insight comes courtesy of his goons who inspected the wreckage and claimed that none of the victims had any blood left in them. So the whole grim episode, we are asked to believe by the man who warned Ukraine not to fly his unfriendly skies, was really just an elaborate hoax. No big deal, then.
As the European Union disclosed months ago, Strelkov is an officer in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, which means that he works directly for Moscow and is directly answerable to Putin. It’s true that he has lately challenged and belittled Putin’s supreme authority: Strelkov essentially called Putin a sissy on July 18 for not rolling in more materiel and even compared him to another putative sellout of pan-Slavic nationalism, Slobodan Milosevic. But Strelkov has, rather conspicuously, yet to be cashiered, assassinated, or dragged back to that Rostov compound in a cage; and it’s not as if Putin is tolerant of intelligence assets he feels have gone rogue or embarrassed or inconvenienced him. This, too, tells us something about the psychology of the actual commander-in-chief: He is fine with outsourcing his wars to loudmouthed and conspiratorial psychopaths.
Interestingly, the man Putin appears to have seconded to impose adult supervision on Strelkov’s army and the DPR has also apparently come clean about what the separatists are capable of. Alexander Khodakovsky is the former head of the Ukraine Security Service’s Alfa division in Donetsk who "defected" to the rebels and now leads the GRU-run Vostok battalion. He was either sacked as the DPR’s security minister by Strelkov, or resigned from the job before the MH17 attack — although he remains a member of Strelkov’s newly created Military Council. As I previously reported in Foreign Policy, there’s a budding rivalry boiling between Strelkov and Khodakovsky, which both have tried to play down but which is nevertheless starting to resemble internecine rebel tensions in Syria. On July 23, Khodakovsky told Reuters that he had heard of one separatist group possessing a Buk and that it may have even received it from Russia. "I knew that a BUK came from Luhansk," he told the news agency. "At the time I was told that a BUK from Luhansk was coming under the flag of the [People’s Republic of Luhansk]." Khodakovsky has since denied he admitted any such thing to Reuters, which released the audio of his interview. It’s true that Reuters mistranslated the first sentence cited above. Khodakovsky did not say "a BUK came"; he used the past imperfect tense in Russian: "a BUK was coming." He also told LifeNews, a Russian television channel close to the Russian security services, that he was merely speaking in hypotheticals, not stating separatist ownership of a Buk as established fact.
Whatever Khodakovsky intended to transmit to his Western interlocutors, we know this: After five days of official silence, Russian military brass argued on July 21, in an elaborate, Strangelovian news briefing, that Ukraine was the bad guy in a variety of contradictory and usually nonsensical ways. One story peddled was that Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jets trailed and shot down the Boeing 777. This is a bizarre Russian accusation even by the standards of bizarre Russian accusations. To begin with, the Su-25 is a ground assault jet and cannot be equipped with a rocket payload big enough to do the damage clearly done to MH17. (Ukraine has other aircraft in its inventory that could more plausibly shoot down a commercial plane.) Furthermore, the Russian military alleges, a second Su-25 was then sent to "hover" over, or "patrol," the crash site of the plane. As Mark Galeotti mordantly noted for my website The Interpreter, the Su-25 has a stall speed of 120-140 miles per hour, which means that if you believe that this aircraft could "hover" over a 10-mile crash site, then you probably buy that Putin just miraculously found that ancient Greek amphorae while going for a swim.
Did Moscow even bother to Wikipedia its own bullshit before disseminating it?
Yesterday, Michael McFaul, who was until recently the U.S. ambassador to Russia, tweeted two very noteworthy observations. The first was this: "If Putin can arm rebels, why can’t we arm Ukraine?" The second was this: "West has to stop trying to change Putin’s mind, and focus more on helping Ukraine succeed, including on the battlefield." Before assuming the ambassadorship, McFaul was a member of Obama’s National Security Council (NSC) and also the architect of the so-called U.S.-Russian "reset" in bilateral relations, a major premise of which had been trying to change Putin’s mind about many things. McFaul’s volte-face in particular should be registered with Obama’s remaining NSC members.
They should also realize that now is the time to convey an entirely different message to Vladimir.
Let’s give Putin a clear choice: Either he can continue subventing and enabling the bloodletting in eastern Ukraine, or we can expose the enormous global network of offshore bank accounts, dummy companies, and real estate holdings that belong to him and his criminal elite. A mafia state should be treated as such. And information should once again be weaponized as it was during the Cold War. Moscow has already gotten a head start, by leaking compromised telephone calls between members of our State Department and between Eurocrats and NATO-allied state officials.
Investigative journalism has already yielded reams of copy on where some of the Putinist wealth is hidden, and how it got there. Much of it is in EU jurisdictions, which are subject to sanctions and/or concerted American diplomatic overtures. The U.S. Treasury Department, the CIA, and the FBI all know more about Putin’s and his cronies’ billions than they say publicly.
Indeed, the first suite of sanctions that the United States passed on Russia disclosed that Putin personally held assets in a Swiss commodities trader called Gunvor, in which, Treasury stated, "Putin has investments" and "may have access to … funds." This was newsworthy, as it was encouraging of even more thorough reporting on where the rumored wealthiest man in Europe stashes his cash. Barack Obama wouldn’t have to try very hard to convince Putin that, if he so desired, he could feed the entire Western media industry enough scoops and exclusives to shake Russia’s stock market and economy for months, if not years, not to mention set the cat among the pigeons of bickering Kremlin political factions.
It’s simply a myth that Russians don’t keep their money in the United States anymore. According to lame-duck Sen. Carl Levin, whom I heard give a press conference at Hotel Ukraina in Kiev last April, there are "billions" of dollars parked on American soil. So why haven’t we frozen that money yet? It’s an open secret to federal law enforcement that the Manhattan and Miami property markets now act as end points for magically transforming black or blood-soaked dollars into pristine portfolios for the kept beneficiaries of authoritarian regimes, including and especially Putin’s. No less than the former head of the Duma’s ethics committee, Vladimir Pekhtin, was shown by Russian dissident Alexey Navalny to have owned millions in real estate in Florida, including a 1,530-square-foot apartment at 1500 Ocean Drive. Pekhtin was also sued by U.S. contractors in the Sunshine State. Can he really be only one this easy to find?
As for Europe, which suffered the most fatalities on July 17, tough love is now indicated, as is the strong American leadership supposedly so desired from London to Paris. The continent has become so accustomed to an endless Volga of no-questions-asked rubles pouring into its commercial and financial centers as to make Brussels objectively complicit in Russian foreign policy. The reliance on Russian gas imports accounts for only some of this fetid interdependence.
The French, for example, have decided that, pending stiff, new EU sanctions (which seem unlikely), they will not go forward with the sale of a second Mistral amphibious helicopter carrier to Putin. I suppose our response to this act of responsible magnanimity should be merci beaucoup, but François Hollande is nonetheless going forward with the sale of the first Mistral. When confronted by a suddenly bullish David Cameron, who expressed his outrage at such a transaction at such a time, the French could only rejoinder that the British were the bigger whores. "This is a false debate led by hypocrites," Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, the head of Hollande’s Socialist Party, said on French television on July 22. "When you see how many [Russian] oligarchs have sought refuge in London, David Cameron should start by cleaning up his own backyard."
And so he should. He can begin the sanitation by refunding the £160,000 given to his Conservative Party by Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of Putin’s former deputy minister, who actually bid the money at auction and won a chance to play a game of tennis with Cameron and Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. And if the former PR-man-turned prime minister really wants to act as Churchillian as he purports to sound, he can at least ensure that next year’s Tory summer fundraising party does not include on the guest list Putin’s judo partner and current Russian MP Vasily Shestakov, as this year’s did. (MI5 may also want to see about rooting out Russian spies in Albion, which it now believes are as numerous as they were during the Cold War.)
And here’s the added benefit of threatening to expose Putin’s dirty money trail and his even dirtier influence-peddling: Doing so implicitly means pressuring our allies to stop acting as Russia’s laundromats and doormats. The Europeans may hate us for it now, but they’ll thank us for it later.