Last week’s meeting between President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin of Russia focused on vital issues of cyber warfare, arms control, interference in US elections, Russian aggression toward its neighbors, and human rights violations. But missing from the meeting was the perspective of Russian citizens. In particular, one who has closely focused on the effects of Putin’s destabilizing actions not simply on foreign rivals but also on Russians at home.
I discussed a path forward in the region with Leonid Volkov, chief of staff to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. With Navalny illegitimately imprisoned 60 miles east of Moscow in Russia’s IK-2 corrective colony, and still recovering from his state-sanctioned poisoning, Volkov provided a clear perspective that was missing from the broader discussion — that of a reformist, an opposition leader, and at his core, a Russian citizen. Effectively exiled from Russia to Lithuania and sitting in the shadow of the US Capitol to discuss the Geneva summit, Volkov highlighted a number of key concerns. Central was Russia’s status as a runaway kleptocracy that was robbing its own citizens of wealth and opportunity to finance Putin’s vanity projects and foreign interventions.
Volkov made it no secret that, since Putin’s ascension, the senior levels of the Russian government and business are rife with corruption on a scale that almost defies belief. Putin’s personal control of billions of dollars in state-owned and plundered assets is foundational to his ability to act as an effective authoritarian. His autocratic control has, among other things, fueled his ability to finance far-right presidential candidates in France and helped him to secure and host the 2014 Winter Olympics. The Mueller report outlined the role Putin’s regime played in interfering with the 2016 US presidential election. Current policies in the United States and Europe have enabled the type of money laundering that solidified Putin’s power.
As the chairman of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee that oversees Russia, I appreciate that the meeting in Geneva succeeded in establishing that the United States will not turn a blind eye to Russia’s destabilizing behavior while opening new channels for constructive discussions. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that it doesn’t take a summit to force change with Russia. There are important steps, from pending legislation in Congress to international coordination on money laundering, that can be executed unilaterally right now.
Congress took an essential step earlier this year by passing the Anti-Money Laundering Act to eliminate the anonymous shell companies that are used to legitimize illicit foreign money. This is one of the most significant anti-corruption policies to come online in decades, one that shows momentum is building on a bipartisan basis to ensure that the United States is willing to pull our heads from the sand and acknowledge that we have work to do domestically. Additionally, there are other initiatives being debated, including the CROOK Act, which I introduced to create an anti-corruption fund that can be used to assist other countries looking to crack down on corruption and modernize their efforts to counter money laundering. These legislative initiatives are a start, but it is crucial that the United States continues to keep the pressure building as we expand upon our work.
While the United States is moving to bolster our defenses, it is vital that we work closely with our international allies. Similar to the United States, Britain and the European Union have been ripe targets for oligarchs and other kleptocrats to clean stolen funds, hide wealth, and live anonymously. As complex as it will be, if we do not synchronize our approach internationally, we can expect that illicit funds will gravitate toward the weakest link. Whether through an international initiative or Biden’s Summit of Democracies, our countries must come together to establish a common framework to counter kleptocracies, particularly Putin’s weaponization of stolen funds.
Volkov stressed that if nothing changes, we can expect that Putin will continue to pursue a policy of foreign destabilization and financial enrichment for himself and the inner circle that protects his power at home. We have made it too easy for too long for kleptocrats like Putin and his network of oligarchs to shelter their stolen wealth and deploy it to threaten and disrupt their opponents. Things are changing, however.
The United States has an experienced president at the helm, bipartisan majorities in Congress working toward a common goal, and a relationship with our European partners that’s more in synch than it has been in years. With the Geneva summit having sounded the starting pistol, the sprint must begin.
Bill Keating is the US representative from Massachusetts’ Ninth District and is chairman of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe, Energy, the Environment, and Cyber.