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Russia may be committing war crimes, but money keeps flowing in

Oligarchy is a weekly newsletter tracking how the super rich are changing the world for the rest of us. Also in this edition: Money, genocide, and how investing in green energy could help sap Putin’s riches

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MONEY AND GENOCIDE

When I worked in the Reuters bureau in Moscow, there were three Russian news agencies’ news wires that we received automatically. Interfax was the biggest and the best, and we tended to rely on it. TASS was the second biggest, but was slow and dull, except for the occasional report from its unique selling point, a North Korean correspondent. RIA Novosti was by far the smallest and was pretty much irrelevant, but we quite admired it for its earnest professionalism. At least it was trying.

So, I cannot tell you how utterly dislocating it was to read this horrible screed on the RIA Novosti website this week. Earnest professionalism now seems to belong in a different universe. The word ‘genocide’ gets thrown around far too much in the former Soviet Union, but this is real Milles Collines stuff: denying Ukraine’s statehood and nationhood, equating Ukrainian-ness with Nazism, and demanding the liquidation of the political class. If you don’t read Russian, or can’t bear to read the whole thing, BBC’s Francis Scarr has picked out some quotes here.

Johns Hopkins Professor Eugene Finkel alluded to this sort of rhetoric in a Twitter thread about his decision to call what’s happening in Ukraine genocide.

  • “Until this morning I resisted applying the term. War crimes? Sure. Heinous rhetoric? You bet. What changed is the combination of more and more evidence, from different places, and even more importantly, explicit official rhetoric.” 

You may object to using a word as serious as genocide to describe what’s happening in Ukraine, and perhaps you’re right: crimes against humanity is in some ways a more useful legal term. But there is no doubt that what happened in Bucha, and is happening in Mariupol and elsewhere, is dreadful and unforgivable, and is getting worse. I can see nothing to disagree with in this Chatham House article about how Ukraine simply must win.

  • “The only way to secure Europe is to ensure Ukraine prevails – and is not subjected to a flawed and unworkable peace settlement that does no more than postpone its reckoning with Russia, while continuing the suffering of the Ukrainian people under occupation.”

Which brings me to a second dislocating news article, from Reuters this time, and published on Tuesday morning as I write this: Russia’s Gazprom says gas exports to Europe via Ukraine stable. There is something almost incomprehensible about the knowledge that business continues, the hydrocarbons and the money keep moving, while bodies lie in the street next to their bicycles, women are raped, and missiles keep slamming into residential buildings.

I did a talk last week about my new book and was asked why it was that the West’s policy towards Russian failed: was it always doomed? It does now look naïve to have extended these unconditional business ties towards Moscow, to have allowed oligarchs to invest in our economies and for us to become reliant on their energy exports, hoping it would somehow turn Russia from an adversary into a neighbor, and then into a friend. But I’m not sure the policy was bad in and of itself. Such trade-based friendship was how the European Union got started after all. Germany and France were enemies, then they started to trade coal and steel with each other. They built mutual respect, and gradually created a union so close that they now share a currency and a trade policy. Is it necessarily the Westerners’ fault that this approach didn’t work with Russia?

Russian politicians accuse Westerners of not treating Russia with respect. Perhaps they’ve forgotten that at the end of the Cold War, Russia was welcomed into the G8 and was given a special relationship with NATO. Its views were listened to long after it had shown itself to be a destructive, rather than constructive, neighbor. But, be that as it may, the policy has failed. The attempt to extend a friendly hand towards Russia led to the atrocities in Bucha, and a new approach is required, and perhaps will have been agreed by the time you read this.

  • “Officials are now aiming to finalize the package of sanctions ahead of a meeting of EU ambassadors on Wednesday, when it would be signed off, though any ban on oil, or even coal, may not be agreed in time. The EU spends tens of billions of euros importing about one-third of its oil from Russia and a ban would directly hit President Vladimir Putin’s ability to finance his war. At the same time, such a policy threatens short-term pain for those EU economies which, like Germany, rely heavily on Russia for their energy,” notes Politico.

Bloomberg is predicting a ban on coal, but not oil.

It’s clear that this is a worrying time for European governments, who are alarmed by the cost of a rapid divorce from Russian energy flows, but there are opportunities here too. It was depressing how little of the COVID-inspired stimulus spending was aimed towards making the economy greener, and thus might have helped to tackle the climate crisis. An assessment by Vivid Economics and the Finance for Biodiversity Initiative found:

  • “Across the board, nature and biodiversity were almost entirely ignored. Even in Europe’s National Resilience and Recovery Plans, it appears that a greater proportion of spending damages nature than enhances it. The situation is even bleaker in the other countries examined.”

If European nations could avoid repeating that mistake, and invest in green energy now, they would not only deprive Putin of the money he’s using to slaughter Ukrainians, but also establish their energy independence for the future AND help fight climate change. 

  • “European policy-makers should use this crisis to secure the triple dividend that green investment can bring: make Europe less dependent on Russian energy, help fight inflation and reduce Europe’s carbon emissions. Match that with a triple funding of taxation, national and European borrowing, and Europe will have made another big step forward towards meaningful integration where it matters: in protecting two of Europe’s most important public goods, security and a stable climate,” notes the Centre for European Reform.

And it wouldn’t cost as much as is often claimed.

  • “Perhaps the most important omission is that estimates of the cost of mitigation do not account for the impacts that we would avoid if we tackle climate change. In other words, the reference scenarios do not realistically represent the cost of doing nothing,” says this very interesting paper.

BUT WHAT ELSE?

So what should we do while we’re building the wind farms, insulating our houses, and making shops keep their doors shut so they don’t blast heat out all winter? We could do the obvious things we should have done ages ago, such as clean up the corporate registries that provide the shell companies behind which criminals can hide their stolen wealth, or move their illegal goods.

  • “Moscow-based OOO Serniya Engineering (Serniya) is at the center of a procurement network engaged in proliferation activities at the direction of Russian Intelligence Services. This network operates across multiple countries to obfuscate the Russian military and intelligence agency end-users that rely on critical western technology,” noted a recent alert from the U.S. Treasury.

If you look closely, you’ll find in that alert: two different UK-registered Limited Liability Partnerships, as well as the Scotland-based Djeco Group LP; as well as companies from Malta and France. Djeco Group is supposedly controlled by a Maltese citizen with a Russian name, and its only general partner is a company in Hong Kong. We hardly need the U.S. Treasury to point out that something’s dodgy there.

On that note, the great Graham Barrow is back once again with the corporate ill behavior, this time featuring Yekaterinburg-based deathcore band Slaughter to Prevail, and its lead singer Alex Terrible, who appear to have gotten into the Limited Partnership business.

  • “On 23 March 2022, AlexTerrible LP was registered to Companies House Scotland, naming Alex as General Partner and another gentleman who appears to be German and living in the Seychelles, as the Limited Partner,” Barrow wrote.

What is going on? Why did he do this? No one knows, and I can’t help feeling that we should. There have been reports of serious criminality involving U.K.-based limited partnerships for years, and yet the government keeps failing to do anything about it. 

  • “It would be depressing if the most positive view of the situation is summed up by Hanlon’s razor: ‘Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.’ But the alternative is even worse: that the democratic process of enacting legislation has been ‘captured’ by powerful interests,” writes Professor Elspeth Barry.

And what about obvious loopholes in other countries that should have been closed years ago? Well, there’s the Geneva Freeport, a warehouse owned by the regional government which pretends to not be in Switzerland at all.

  • “All of my meetings with Russian investors were cancelled last week following the start of the war. But I spoke to three different gallery owners, and they all confirmed that three weeks prior to the Ukrainian invasion there had been a huge surge in sales to Russian buyers. My guess is that they were told about the war beforehand,” said one industry insider.

And then there’s the importance of getting new laws right, and actually enforcing them, about which it’s worth reading this excellent report analyzing the U.K.’s abject failure to follow through on the promise of its Unexplained Wealth Orders, a legal tool meant to cut through offshore protections on wealth and which was supposed to sort out the oligarchs.

GILDED AGE 2.0

Of course, there’s plenty going on that doesn’t involve Russia, and I was struck by this remarkable report from Bloomberg about just how much wealth is about to be inherited in the United States.

  • “Almost half of all U.S. wealth transferred from the end of 2020 through 2045 will come from the top 1.5% of households, according to estimates from research firm Cerulli. Using trusts and other techniques, the wealthiest Americans can shield the bulk of their fortunes from the federal government’s 40% estate and gift tax levy,” the report notes.

I find the way some U.S. states have distorted trusts absolutely fascinating, and wrote about the crucial role played by South Dakota in this a couple of years ago. Until 1983, property put in trust could only stay there for around a century, but then South Dakota decided to try to attract business for its laws, and passed a law allowing these trusts to carry on indefinitely. Now all this wealth being put into trusts, dodging taxes, and enriching only the tiniest slither of U.S. society, is going to stay there forever, so home-grown U.S. oligarchs will become ever more powerful.

  • “The accumulations of wealth by ultrarich families in recent decades now exceed even those from the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. And huge family fortunes continue to pile up day after day with no end in sight. This unceasing buildup of private wealth makes our society less equal, our economy less stable and our democracy less secure,” wrote Americans for Tax Fairness.

On that note, Elon Musk bought nine percent of Twitter and joined the company’s board of directors this week. 

I have to do a talk on the theme of hope this week. Wish me luck.

WHAT I’M READING

I have just received a copy of Bill Browder’s new book Freezing Order, which I will be devouring this week. I’m sure many of you are aware of Browder’s tireless campaigning for sanctions against human rights abusers, and you can come and see me asking questions of him and Catherine Belton at the Hay Festival this summer. If you’ve never been to Hay-on-Wye before, you’re in for a treat, and I’m not just saying that because it’s my home town.

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Oliver Bullough

Oliver Bullough is an author and journalist from Wales, who specializes in writing about financial crime, often when it has links to the former Soviet Union. His most recent book is Moneyland, why thieves and crooks now rule the world and how to take it back, and he is currently trying to write another one despite lockdown.

@OliverBullough