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White House targets 'facilitators' of 'global bully' as it aims to broaden Russian sanctions

·Washington Correspondent
·4 min read

Nearly seven months ago Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, prompting the West to implement what has often been described as the biggest sanctions response in modern history.

And while measures like seizing yachts and revoking international banking access have gained plenty of notice, they have nonetheless failed so far to stop Putin’s apparent resolve to continue his war with Ukraine.

On Tuesday, two key Biden officials traveled to Capitol Hill to promise the sanctions will not only continue but also grow in the months ahead with Congress's help. One branch of the effort, the so-called KleptoCapture Task Force, is looking to target the "facilitators" who enable individuals and groups that are coming to Putin's aid.

The focus on facilitators "would be particularly powerful and allow us to go after a broader set of actors," Andrew Adams, the director of the task force, testified on Tuesday.

Adams — a veteran federal prosecutor who has investigated Russian organized crime — has been charged with targeting the finances of Russia's oligarchs. Elizabeth Rosenberg, the assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department, also testified about US efforts to cap the price of Russian oil.

Andrew Adams, the head of the U.S. Department of Justice's KleptoCapture task force, which is targeting Russian oligarchs and evasion of sanctions intended to pressure Moscow to end its invasion of Ukraine, speaks during an interview with Reuters in New York City, New York, U.S., April 1, 2022. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Andrew Adams, the head of the U.S. Department of Justice's KleptoCapture task force, in New York City in April. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

The appearance prompted some criticism, with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) kicking off Tuesday’s hearing by saying “let’s be honest, the sanctions imposed on Russia thus far have not yet come remotely close” to crippling the Russian economy. Toomey noted that the Russian oil industry is more profitable now than before the invasion began, and he called the idea of a price cap “intriguing."

Targeting the ‘facilitators’

The "KleptoCapture" task force has frozen around $39 billion in assets since it launched in March, Adams said Tuesday. The seizures have come in myriad forms, from cryptocurrency to mega-yachts to art to cash stored at US financial institutions.

The task force has mostly focused so far on the hundreds of named individuals subject to sanctions, from notorious oligarchs to Vladimir Putin’s rumored girlfriend.

“These are classic sanctions that form the basis for most historical casework and figure most prominently in the public imagination,” he said in his prepared remarks, citing yacht seizures specifically.

Spanish Civil Guards stand by the Tango superyacht, suspected to belong to a Russian oligarch, as it is docked at the Mallorca Royal Nautical Club, in Palma de Mallorca, in the Spanish island of Mallorca, Spain, April 4, 2022. Juan Poyates Oliver/Handout via REUTERS   THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT.
Spanish Civil Guards stand by a yacht suspected of belonging to a Russian oligarch in the Spanish island of Mallorca, Spain in April. The seizure was made with the assistance of the U.S. government. (Juan Poyates Oliver/Handout via REUTERS)

But beyond those classic sanctions, Adams says KleptoCapture’s mandate should expand. A priority of the task force in the coming months will be on going after individuals around the world who are "making a buck" off of Russian efforts to dodge sanctions, he says.

Those efforts would extend “beyond the subset of targets commonly recognized as the oligarch set,” he says — and not target only Russians nationals. Instead, the task force would go after figures around the globe in “non-cooperative jurisdictions” which could include workers at banks, law firms, real estate companies, and more.

For his part, Toomey said the US should proceed "very, very carefully" before expanding the Task Force's mandate in a way that would sweep non-Russians into its purview.

Oil price caps: ‘a new form of economic statecraft’

Tuesday's hearing also heavily focused on the Biden administration's campaign to implement a price cap on Russian oil. During her testimony, Rosenberg highlighted the Treasury Department’s effort to impose the cap, which officials have promised to implement by December.

She called it “an entirely new way to use financial measures against a global bully,” while pushing back on critics who worry it will be unworkable in practice.

The ability to access services only available in the US and EU nations will provide an economic incentive to get enough companies involved in world oil markets on board with the measure, she said. This “is the vanguard for a new form of economic statecraft,” she says.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping before an extended-format meeting of heads of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit (SCO) member states in Samarkand, Uzbekistan September 16, 2022. Sputnik/Sergey Bobylev/Pool via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on September 16 (Sputnik/Sergey Bobylev/Pool via Reuters)

Adams also mentioned the Justice Department's desire for new legislation to make it easier for the US to close ongoing investigations on "frozen" assets, which would have the effect of turning them into "forfeited" assets that can go directly to Ukraine. Adams is also pushing rules changes to allow investigators more leeway in tracking down Russians who try to evade the sanctions.

Also Tuesday, Senators Toomey and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) released a new framework for Russian sanctions focused on both capping the price of oil exports as well as new tools to hold financial institutions accountable for "profiteering" off goods coming out of Russia.

Toomey says he hopes it will be considered and passed by Congress "as soon as possible."

Ben Werschkul is a Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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