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ROUNDING UP RATS

Diane Francis

May 9, 2022

 

Putin in his speech today did not announce an escalation of his war, Jill Biden spent Mother’s Day in Ukraine as a show of solidarity, and Russia’s “first lady” was pressured to leave her Swiss villa with her children and is about to face sanctions in Europe. Her name is Alina Kabaeva, a beautiful woman who is also known for gymnastic virtuosity, odious disinformation campaigns against Ukraine, and a doping scandal. A recent online petition circulated in Switzerland demanded her expulsion and she’s surfaced in Moscow. The two met in 2004 and their “relationship” is unconfirmed but she heads a holding company with large stakes in almost all major state media outlets, responsible for spewing hateful inaccurate accusations against Ukraine during the war. She is now on the sixth, and latest, list of those about to be hit with European Union sanctions along with more oligarchs and other henchmen.

The United States has been reluctant to put her on its list, amid concerns that, according to the Wall Street Journal, “sanctioning Ms. Kabaeva would be deemed so personal a blow to Mr. Putin that it could further escalate tensions between Russia and the U.S.” But the U.S. sanctioned Putin’s two adult daughters. The BBC recently reported that despite the fact that Putin has never acknowledged a relationship or the existence of more children, the EU targetted her for disseminating Kremlin propaganda and for being “closely associated” with the 69-year-old President Putin. In all, more than 1,000 oligarchs and corporations have been sanctioned by allies.

Ms. Kabaeva won dozens of championship medals as a teenager, but in 2001 also tested positive for a banned substance. From 2007 to 2014, she was a State Duma Deputy and then became chair of the National Media Group. Rumors are that they have four young children together, all Swiss citizens. In addition to her “eviction” from Switzerland, and pending European sanctions, there is a movement to strip her of the 21 European Championship medals, 14 World Championship medals, and 2 Olympic medals she has won.

She, like every known member of Putin’s inner circle, is being pursued around the world, thanks in part to research conducted by jailed Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and his organization. Their social standing, residencies, “golden” passports, visas, mansions, yachts, and estates have been attacked by protesters or subjected to government seizures. They are getting booted out of society, stock markets, directorships, yacht clubs, condo corporations, the Davos World Economic Forum, private gentlemen’s clubs in London, and business deals around the world. The New York Post even published a map of shame showing the residences of a handful of Russian oligarchs in Manhattan, complete with their names and those of their sellers, specific addresses, and the tens of millions paid for these properties.

The global dragnet is being cast far and wide by Washington and Brussels in order to find and claim billions of assets stocked away offshore or in anonymous corporations with a view toward handing proceeds over as reparations to Ukrainians. The hunt has ramped up and led to the creation of a new multinational body called “The Russian Elites, Proxies, and Oligarchs Task Force” that will track and seize assets, a difficult task given the legal barriers they have erected to hide and protect their riches. Some members of Congress also propose to offer huge cash bonuses to the “rats” such as lawyers, brokers, and accountants who have enabled them for information that leads to arrests or seizures or both.

The state theft by Russia’s kleptocracy is breathtaking, historically speaking. Russian billionaires control roughly 30 percent of the nation’s total wealth and have as much financial wealth stashed in offshore foreign accounts as does the entire hapless Russian population of 144 million, according to a 2017 paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Then there are the toys.

On May 7, a prize trophy was grabbed when Italian officials impounded a $700-million superyacht, believed to be owned by Putin himself before it left drydock to avoid sanctions. The 459-foot “Scheherazade” has multiple swimming pools, a cinema, two helipads, spas, and a crew of nearly 200. Navalny’s organization tipped off police about its existence by releasing a video alleging its crew was mostly drawn from Russia’s Federal Protection Service which guards President Putin.

Curiously, six Russian oligarchs have committed “suicide” in recent weeks. Speculation is that they were knocked off for disloyalty or, also possible, some have faked their deaths in order to disappear. USA Today reported that 38 high-profile Russians died or went missing in a three-year time span, but the pace has sped up since the war. Recent “suicides” include an oil tycoon in London and big shots affiliated with Russia’s oil and gas corporations, along with their families — indicating scandals, rivalries, or a collapsing energy sector. Of course, churn among personnel is not unusual in criminal organizations — be it Russia Inc. or the New York mob – but this suicide uptick is a good indication that the Russian ship of state is sinking. The rats are fleeing or getting pushed.

Added to the Russian kleptocracy’s woes is the American proposal to “RICO” (legally confiscate) their yachts and mansions and all assets on behalf of Ukrainian victims. Congress’s new bill titled the “Yachts for Ukraine” Act would permit authorities to seize property held by Russians in the US valued above $5 million and repurpose the wealth to provide weapons and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. Bank accounts, real estate, and superyachts all fall under that category. Russian enclaves like Sunny Isles in Florida may become targets but grabbing condos and assets will be complicated by the reality that beneficial ownership is often buried behind layers of other entities from Delaware numbered corporations to unrelated proxies, lawyers trusts, offshore banks, and phony identities.

Inside Russia, hundreds of thousands who worked for western companies have lost their jobs, likely on a permanent basis. And the economy is imploding. In addition, Russia’s once-prestigious sporting and cultural worlds are being decimated as a result of backlashes and boycotts; then there are predictions that food export bans against Russia will result in serious food shortages by the end of May across Russia.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 3.8 million Russians have left for travel or business purposes, according to official government data published by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). “Former Soviet countries saw significant spikes in arrivals after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Russians who fled out of opposition to the war were joined by those escaping rumored border closures, martial law, and mass mobilization that have so far not materialized in the 72-day war. It’s unclear how many of these Russians have since returned to their home country,” wrote the independent Moscow Times.

Outside Russia, individuals, along with allies, are attacking these predators. Squatters temporarily took control over one of the London mansions of high profile Oleg Deripaska, well-known in Washington circles and a pal of Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

In late February, a 156-foot yacht called Lady Anastasia, owned by Russian arms manufacturer Alexander Mijeev, was nearly sent to the bottom by its 55-year-old Chief engineer from Ukraine named Taras Ostapchuk. He attempted to scuttle the ship while it was in port in Mallorca, Spain by opening valves to flood the vessel. He warned other crew members to evacuate and patiently waited for the police to arrive. Unrepentant, he told the authorities: “I don’t regret anything I’ve done and I would do it again. My boss is a criminal who sells weapons that kill the Ukrainian people.”

He testified in court: “I watched the news about the war. There was a video of a helicopter attack on a building in Kyiv. The armaments used are produced by the yacht owner’s company. They were attacking innocents.” Before the trial, he told a local paper that he intended to return to his native Ukraine and look for a military commander in order to join the ongoing fight against Russia. When the judge asked the man if he regretted what he had done, he said that he’d do it again. He was released by the judge and police and the local authorities let him leave.

The ship didn’t sink but is permanently damaged and will be impounded — a fitting metaphor for what’s happening to Russia itself.