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Putin and His Billions

The New York Times on Sunday had a fascinating article on Vladimir Putin’s personal fortune, which has been estimated as high as $40 billion. What made the article truly dismaying, however, was not its detailed speculation about the extent to which Putin has looted the Russian state. This was depressing but hardly shocking. 

I was far more dismayed by this sentence: “So far, the American government has not imposed sanctions on Mr. Putin himself, and officials said they would not in the short term, reasoning that personally targeting a head of state would amount to a ‘nuclear’ escalation, as several put it.”

So let me get this straight: Putin can invade neighboring states such as Georgia and Ukraine. He can oppress his own people and steal from them. He can shore up a murderous despot in Syria and block effective action against the Iranian mullahs over their nuclear program. But the West thinks that trying to sanction and freeze his ill-gotten billions is too risky an escalation?

If you want to know why Putin is able to get away with his brazen aggression, here it is in a nutshell: a fundamental failure of will on the part of the U.S. and its European allies. Obviously nobody favors nuclear or even conventional military retaliation–we are not going to war with Russia unless it crosses some future line. 

But surely Putin has already crossed enough lines to justify the most severe possible economic sanctions we can inflict–including doing everything possible to deny him and his cronies the use of their illicitly acquired fortunes. The fact that we are willing to impose limited sanctions on some Putin pals but not on the master of the Kremlin himself says volumes about how fecklessly we are acting in the face of continuing and escalating aggression.

The big difference between the current masters of the Kremlin and their Soviet predecessors is that today’s crew are much more vulnerable to Western retaliation because they have so much money and property stored in the West. But it seems we are voluntarily giving up this leverage until sometime in the future. Are we waiting for Putin to invade Poland?


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