The Russian people en masse are embarking on one of the world’s largest fights against kleptocracy – the rule of thieves. They want their government to stop plundering their wealth and using it to hold on to power by any means necessary. They are fighting for the same things all people want: a government that listens to them, represents their interests, and invests in their future.
Over the past two weekends, Russia witnessed the largest nationwide protest movement in its history. Last month more than 300,000 people poured into the streets in 177 cities across 11 time zones. One week later, despite a fearsome show of force by the government, people rallied again in at least 85 cities across the Ural Mountains, Siberia, and the Far East, where support for President Vladimir Putin is traditionally higher. The geographic breadth of the protests marks a turning point in the relationship between Putin and the people.
The Russian people are demanding the freedom of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who had just returned to the country after recovering in Germany from a botched assassination attempt by Russian security forces. Notably, they also voiced their anger at Vladimir Putin, who has plundered the nation’s wealth to enrich himself and his cronies, depriving the Russian people of economic opportunity and a political voice. One of the most common phrases chanted during the protests has been “Putin vor!” or “Putin is a thief!”
The Kremlin has responded the only way it knows: with force. Nearly 4,000 protesters were arrested on the first weekend and more than 5,000 were detained on Sunday – massive numbers even for Russia. Police detained children as young as nine, while others became the victims of violence, like a 54-year-old St. Petersburg woman who spent a night in the hospital after riot police kicked her in the stomach.
Such repression may backfire. Public outrage at police brutality will only draw greater sympathy from those sitting on the fence and could help the protests snowball into an even larger movement that is harder to suppress. The fight against kleptocracy should not be the Russian people’s alone. Corruption is the fuel that powers the Kremlin’s destructive agenda abroad. It props up Aleksandr Lukashenko’s dictatorship in Belarus and the bloody war in Eastern Ukraine. It funds troll factories and disinformation machines that sow confusion and discontent in the West. It bankrolls illicit efforts to interfere in elections.
Global kleptocracy is a national security threat that must be neutralized. To fight kleptocracy, the U.S. and its allies should make it as difficult as possible for the Kremlin elite to use the West as a haven for themselves, their family, and their money. For decades, Kremlin cronies have stored their ill-gotten wealth within the Western financial system for safekeeping, often hiding behind the anonymity of shell companies to avoid scrutiny from law enforcement and the public. Many invest in real estate, own expensive vacation villas and yachts, and send their children to Western universities.
These figures enjoy the best of both worlds – obtaining vast wealth through corruption at home and enjoying the stable financial system and better living conditions abroad. To its credit, the U.S. Treasury Department has a robust targeted sanctions program that has frozen the assets of several dozen Kremlin officials and prevented them from traveling to the U.S. and Congress recently banned anonymous shell companies. However, these measures do not go nearly far enough. There are at least three more things the U.S. must do.
First, the U.S. must dramatically expand its targeted sanctions program to include the entire upper ranks of the Kremlin elite, including high-ranking government officials, the heads of major corporations, and the heads of Russia’s 85 regions. Sanctions must also include the families and top associates of these individuals, in whose names the ill-gotten gains of corruption are often registered.
Second, the U.S. must fully investigate pre-existing anonymous shell companies for money laundering and expose the funds or assets acquired illegally. The message: the U.S. financial system and the U.S. dollar will provide no shelter for corrupt authoritarians.
Finally, the U.S. should coordinate with its allies in Europe to ensure their financial system is no more hospitable to the Kremlin than America’s. Sanctions and investigations do no good if the oligarchs can simply move their money across the Atlantic. The Russian people are filling the streets, risking their safety and their freedom, to demand an end to kleptocracy. But corruption and kleptocracy threaten the entire world. Their fight is also our fight.