Targeted Sanctions on Corrupt and Abusive Russian Officials: What Civil Society is Calling For
Human Rights First has called for the United States and other governments to immediately impose targeted Global Magnitsky sanctions on corrupt and abusive Russian officials.
Doing so would provide a measure of accountability for serious corruption and abuses. It would make it harder for the authoritarian Russian government to sustain itself with corrupt gains. It might also discourage Russian aggression against Ukraine – though accountability for corruption and abuse should not depend on the Russian government’s actions in the current crisis, a crisis that the government’s unchecked corrupt rule has made possible.
As Russia’s war against Ukraine deepens, many civil society organizations are also calling for broad economic sanctions. But what would targeted sanctions look like? Organizations based in the region have made specific proposals for how asset freezes and travel bans should be used.
Anti-Corruption Foundation: In a public letter in January 2021, this organization – founded by Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny – requested that the U.S. government impose sanctions on President Putin’s associates. The letter identified 35 such individuals, including alleged corrupt oligarchs, human rights abusers, and individuals involved in the persecution of Navalny and the foundation. The letter called for sanctions to target key decision makers and those who hold their money; “anything less will fail to make the regime change its behavior.”
“Block Putin Wallets”: This campaign, led by the Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC) in Ukraine, is advocating for Western governments to impose sanctions on Kremlin oligarchs and their families with assets in European countries. The organization has mapped out an extensive network of key oligarchs, companies, and financial institutions in Europe whom it describes as having “agreed to be Putin’s wallets and thus became billionaires.”
Local groups focused on eastern Ukraine: Drawing on the research and efforts of the Media Initiative for Human Rights and the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, several group and individual signatories in December 2021 called on the United States to impose sanctions on individuals operating a notorious prison in Ukraine’s Donetsk province. There, Russian-backed forces have reportedly held and tortured hostages for their “perceived support for Ukrainian sovereignty and their exercise of free expression.”
The U.S. government has taken some actions using these tools to hold Russia-linked human rights abusers and corrupt actors accountable. Those include a handful of the “Navalny 35,” as well as individuals allegedly responsible for impeding justice for the killing of Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky and killing or torturing political opponents in Chechnya. But the U.S. actions have done too little to focus on “the people with the money.”
On Tuesday, President Biden said that the U.S. government would, among other actions in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, impose sanctions against “Russia’s elite and family members.” He took a few more steps in that direction on Thursday, but he should urgently take more, guided by the insightful recommendations from civil society organizations working to check the power of those who abuse human rights, undermine democracy, and hoard Russia’s wealth through corrupt acts. Other governments should act in tandem.
The best time to take these actions would have been several years ago; the second-best time is now.