Russia’s attack on Ukraine is a tragic reminder that kleptocracy kills

“In 2015, a fire at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest killed 27 people. Over the months following the accident, 37 additional people died from infections caused by the use of diluted medical disinfectant in the Romanian hospitals where they were treated. As the Oscar-nominated documentary ‘Collective’ chronicles, the company producing the substandard solution bribed public officials and hospital managers to get their products in medical facilities across the country…

“… The tragedy in Romania illustrates how corruption can provoke the loss of human lives. Today, the devastation brought about by Russia’s offensive in Ukraine is proof that systemic grand corruption, or kleptocracy, can kill on a grand scale. 

“Putin has attained his objectives by deploying the kleptocrat’s playbook: In addition to arbitrarily disposing of state assets to favor cronies, silencing dissent and jailing opponents, under his direction the Kremlin also has utilized other tactics, including vexatious lawsuits against reporters and whistleblowers abroad, the bribing of foreign public officials, and far-reaching reputation laundering campaigns. Most abhorrent, his regime is suspected to have ordered the killing of multiple critics willing to denounce the state’s corruption.

“Kleptocracy enables aggression in three principal ways. First, by entrenching a kleptocratic class that is invested in maintaining their economic access, kleptocracy limits the capacity of the elites to provide a check on government. Even in authoritarian contexts, there is a certain degree of accountability. In most dictatorships, groups that could include a powerful military, the clergy, or an independent oligarchy limit the sphere of what the leader of a country can do. In kleptocratic systems, the intertwined nature of political and economic power and the capacity to park and access wealth abroad — thanks to bank secrecy laws, beneficial ownership arrangements and ‘golden visas’ — increases the autonomy of the kleptocratic class vis-à-vis their domestic market.

“At the same time, kleptocracy is a zero-sum game in which there is little room for growing the pie without empowering new actors who might jeopardize the standing of the insiders. This is particularly true in the face of real or perceived threats to the status quo, which might push second-tier elites to support embarking on dangerous projects that could be seen as offering the prospect of pecuniary gain. In the case of Putin’s Russia, the offensive in Ukraine would have been less about increasing access and more about preventing Ukrainians from breaking away with the Russian kleptocracy and its tentacles in Kyiv.

“The invasion of Ukraine is a tragic reminder that kleptocracy, the turbocharged version of corruption, exacerbates the corrosive effects of state abuse, turning the absence of accountability into a criminal enterprise. In certain conditions, the violent nature of kleptocracy can morph into war. The Ukrainians are experiencing this escalation in the flesh.

“It is time to recognize the enormous human cost of kleptocracy and demand sustained transnational coordination to seize the ill-gotten assets from kleptocrats all over the world…”

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