Comment Writer James Simpson explains the recent vote on a bill enabling the US to seize Russian assets, highlighting the hypocrisies of their policy and their treatment of billionaires

Written by James Simpson
Images by Sharon McCutcheon

On Thursday 28 April, U.S. President Joe Biden unveiled plans to provide aid to Ukraine in its ongoing resistance to the Russian invasion. The proposal, which sets-out $33 billion in military, economic and humanitarian aid, is part of the United States government’s wider initiative to obstruct Russian influence following President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine on 24 February of this year. Commenting on the proposal, President Biden has affirmed that ‘the cost of this fight is not cheap, but caving to aggression is going to be more costly if we allow it to happen’. He later added: ‘We either back Ukrainian people as they defend their country, or we stand by as the Russians continue their atrocities’.

Contained within this new initiative are plans to both seize and liquidate Russian oligarchs’ assets. These plans were formally approved by the House of Representatives on 27 April, when the overwhelming majority of Democratic and Republican lawmakers voted in support of the Asset Seizure for Ukraine Reconstruction Act. The legislation, set-out in a bipartisan bill sponsored (among others) by Rep. Tom Malinowski, demands the following of President Biden:

‘The President should take all constitutional steps to seize and confiscate assets under the jurisdiction of the United States of foreign persons whose wealth is derived in part through the corruption linked to or political support for the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin and with respect to which the President has imposed sanctions’.

A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.

Four Democrats (including outspoken progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and four Republicans voted against the bill, prompting criticism on both sides of the political spectrum. However, the bill is non-binding; it merely preempts President Biden’s intention to transfer liquidated funds to Ukraine to ‘remediate harms of Russian aggression’.

There may well be legal justification for taking umbrage with Biden’s proposal

There are easy objections to be made against the new proposals. As Bruce Fein argues in an article for The Hill, the plan to seize Russian oligarchs’ assets ‘sets an appalling precedent’. Not only does it grant the President potentially unlimited power to confiscate oligarchs’ assets, but it could well violate pre-existing legal protections that are enshrined constitutionally. Fein goes on to claim that the U.S. government’s plans violate ‘the spirit, if not the letter, of the constitutional prohibition of bills of attainder in Article I, section 9, clause 3’, which prohibits any legislative acts inflicting punishment on a party ‘without any conviction in the ordinary course of judicial proceedings’. So there may well be legal justification for taking umbrage with Biden’s proposal.

However, for me, the main issue does not concern the legal dimensions of what has been proposed, but rather the hypocrisy that underlies it. In a piece for Project Syndicate, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis notes that Russia’s wealthiest 0.01% ‘have taken about half their wealth, around $200 billion, out of Russia and stashed it in the UK and other [tax] havens’, while ‘America’s wealthiest 0.01% have taken around $1.2 trillion out of the United States’. In short, the issue of corrupt wealth is of more pressing importance at home than abroad. 

By explicitly targeting Russian wealth and its murky sources, all the while failing to address the issue within its own borders, the United States has made it abundantly clear that the move to seize Russian assets is entirely politically-motivated and little more than axe-grinding. Of course I entirely understand the need to challenge Putin and the ongoing atrocities in the Ukraine, but doing so in a way that merely exposes double standards entirely undermines Biden’s credibility as a political opponent. America’s double standard when it comes to billionaires’ wealth reveals itself even at the rhetorical level: why are the likes of Jeff Bezos frequently referred to in the media as ‘billionaires’, yet Roman Abramovich and others among Russia’s super-rich are labelled ‘oligarchs’? An oligarch is defined as ‘one of a small group of powerful people who control a country or an industry’, so why is this term not also applied to the American billionaires who exercise just as much power and influence as their Russian counterparts?

The US has no moral high-ground to take in tackling corrupt wealth

Varoufakis rightly notes that American multi-billionaires enjoy ‘no less clout’ and stash ‘no less money abroad’ than Russian oligarchs. Yet for some reason Biden and his government are clearly reticent to sanction the likes of Bezos, Elon Musk and other tycoons who have amassed eye-watering fortunes while continually avoiding paying federal income tax. They also seem reticent to challenge dubious wealth in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, where multi-billionaire princes profit off of the country’s ongoing genocidal war against the people of Yemen (conveniently, Saudi Arabia is also one of America’s largest oil exporters). What the recent move shows, therefore, is that the United States has no moral high-ground to take in tackling corrupt wealth, or, indeed, in issues of foreign policy. Its plan to seize Russian wealth is just one in a series of cynical moves to flex its imperialist muscles and maintain dominance in the theatre of global relations.

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