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U.S. and allies to target Russian oligarchs' wealth to push Putin to end invasion

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

With each day, pressure grows on Russian oligarchs and on their yachts and on their mansions. President Biden said last week that targeting oligarchs was one way that he would push Vladimir Putin to end the invasion of Ukraine. And nearly every day, other countries say they will do the same. But even as scrutiny rises, it's becoming quite clear that cutting oligarchs off from their riches is a complicated business. NPR's Jackie Northam reports on how it all might play out.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Within a week, the U.S., the European Union, the U.K. and others have gone after the assets of Russia's oligarchs. They're in oil and steel, shipping and finance, men who have amassed tens of billions of dollars over the years. Stuart Gilman, who helped track down stolen assets for the United Nations and the World Bank, says all those sanctioned have one thing in common.

STUART GILMAN: Every one of them have an intimacy with Putin, and they're billionaires as a result. All of their money came out of Putin.

NORTHAM: And all of them have placed much of their fortune in assets outside of Russia, says Oliver Bullough, the author of four books on kleptocracy and Russia.

OLIVER BULLOUGH: For example, real estate in New York or London, the south of France, or substantial fine art collection. Or they might own football - soccer clubs.

NORTHAM: There are also super-sized yachts and private jets. The U.S. and allies are trying to cut oligarchs off from their wealth. But first, they have to find that wealth.

Already, some of the yachts are heading to safe ports outside of U.S. jurisdiction. Tracking down their money and property is difficult because it can be hidden with shell companies or tax havens. It's time-consuming work, says Amber Vitale, a former official with the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control.

AMBER VITALE: So for example, getting bank records or getting the invoicing and shipping documents - there has to be subpoenas issued, hundreds, sometimes thousands of documents reviewed carefully.

NORTHAM: Even once ownership is determined, usually the best the authorities can do is freeze the assets, says Stuart Gilman.

GILMAN: Seizing them is another question.

NORTHAM: That would require Russia claiming the wealth was acquired illegally.

GILMAN: And I cannot see Vladimir Putin making that complaint.

NORTHAM: Author Oliver Bullough says another challenge is the political will to see this through. He says the U.K. and EU don't have good track records when it comes to sanctioning individuals.

BULLOUGH: Jurisdictions like Cyprus, Malta, the U.K., all of which have been very, very receptive to Russian wealth over the years - we will see how much appetite there is to follow through.

NORTHAM: This time may be different, though. Germany, France and Italy have already gone after mega yachts and villas. Some oligarchs are scrambling, one of them even going so far as to hold a press conference to defend himself. Here's Mikhail Fridman as broadcast on Sky News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKHAIL FRIDMAN: Imposing sanctions against us here just create enormous pressure for us personally. But we do not have any impact for political decision.

NORTHAM: The U.S. and allies hope the sanctions will force Russia's elite to pressure Putin to end the war. Nate Sibley with the Hudson Institute's Kleptocracy Initiative says there's no sign of that so far.

NATE SIBLEY: Some of them have started to come out after, saying we want the war to stop, which is not the same as saying, President Putin, please stop the war, because they're scared stiff of Vladimir Putin. So no one seems able or willing or confident enough to challenge him.

NORTHAM: That may change as the financial vise tightens around the oligarchs.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEN DAZE'S "HIDDEN WORLDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.