US works to 'seize and freeze' wealth of Russian oligarchs

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A view of the yacht "Lady M", owned by Russian oligarch Alexei Mordashov, at it is docked at Imperia's harbor, Italy, Saturday, March 5, 2022. European governments are moving against Russian oligarchs to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to back down on his war in Ukraine, seizing superyachts and other luxury properties from billionaires on sanctions lists. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

WASHINGTON – Announcing tough sanctions against Russian oligarchs over the war in Ukraine was step one.

Now the U.S. and its allies are creating new teams to act on their vow to “seize and freeze” the giant boats, estates and other pricey assets of Russian elites.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday for the first time convened a multilateral task force known as REPO, one of several new efforts dedicated to enforcing sanctions.

REPO — short for Russian Elites, Proxies and Oligarchs — will work with other countries to investigate and prosecute oligarchs and individuals allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The group is now looking into 50 individuals, with 28 names publicly announced.

The effort faces several challenges, including varying laws across countries that could make legal discovery difficult and the risk of penalizing innocent people whose property may be tied up in an oligarch’s seized assets.

And time presents a problem: Investigations can drag on for months and years.

Germany, the U.K., France, Italy and other counties are involved in trying to collect and share information against Russians targeted for sanctions, the White House said when it announced the formation of the task force.

It will work alongside another group called KleptoCapture, led by the Justice Department to enforce the economic restrictions within the U.S. imposed on Russia and its billionaires, working with the FBI, Treasury and other federal agencies.

The government says the sanctions imposed already have had a biting effect on the Russian economy.

Russia lost access to vital imports for its military gear and more than $600 billion in assets held by its central bank, and faces ongoing rounds of targeted sanctions against companies and the wealthy elite who are tied to Putin.

The Russian stock market has yet to reopen since the sanctions began, while the ratings company Fitch said Russia would likely default if it used rubles to repay dollar-denominated debt due this week. The Institute of International Finance estimates that the Russian economy will shrink by 15% this year, instead of the 3% growth that was expected pre-invasion.

Andrew Adams, a federal prosecutor who is leading the KleptoCapture task force, stressed property seizures must be conducted within the law.

“You cannot just walk up and grab somebody's yacht. You have to walk through the facts that link the property to a crime,” he told MSNBC in an interview this week. "You have to be able to describe not only what crime was committed with a degree of probable cause, but you have to trace the property to the condition of the crime.”

Ryan Fayhee, a former Justice Department prosecutor and current sanctions attorney at Hughes Hubbard & Reed in Washington, D.C. said “the challenge and the time involved with it is going to be demonstrating probable cause to actually justify a seizure."

“This isn’t like a bank robbery,” Fayhee said, adding that the U.S. government is going to have to tie any potential actions to a U.S. criminal offense. ”That's going to be the challenge and it will take months or years — not days.”

On top of this, the complicated financial instruments that oligarchs invest in will inevitably draw everyday people into seizure actions, says Jonathan C. Poling, a former Justice Department prosecutor who works on sanctions and international trade issues for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in D.C.

The concern is how do governments impose sanctions “in a way that doesn’t punish innocent people” Poling said.

Both the REPO and KleptoCapture groups will use data analytics, cryptocurrency tracing, intelligence, and data from financial regulators to track sanctions evasion, money laundering and other criminal acts.

Dariya Golubkova, an international trade attorney at Holland & Knight said cooperation between countries will be a benefit to sanctions enforcement, but there are countries that may be “missing from the international cooperation.”

Golubkova said countries that serve as havens to oligarch's property will have to cooperate in REPO's effort, or else sanctions will be less impactful.

The EU Tax Observatory think tank, associated with the Paris School of Economics, has called for a European Asset Registry to assist in sanctions efforts.

Golubkova also predicted that because countries have different search and seizure laws "some of these requirements may so mounting that you can’t get over them."


Associated Press writer Josh Boak in Baltimore contributed to this report.