Fund Ukraine’s War Effort by Confiscating Russian Government Assets
There is an ongoing political debate about the appropriate extent of Western aid to Ukraine in resisting Russian aggression. How much cost is it worthwhile for Western taxpayers to bear? Whatever, the answer, the burden can be greatly reduced by confiscating Russian government assets in the West, and using them to fund Ukraine’s defense.
There is a staggering $300 billion in frozen Russian state assets located in Western nations backing Ukraine. Most of this wealth is located in European Union nations. But about $5 billion is in the US. To put this figure in perspective, it’s worth noting that the total amount of US aid to Ukraine from February 2022 through July 31, 2023 was about $77 billion. The European Union, individual European states, and Canada, gave approximately $165 billion during the same period (I converted Euro figures to dollars at the current exchange rate). The $300 billion in frozen assets is equal to some two years of total Western assistance to Ukraine at the current pace of spending!
There is a strong moral and pragmatic case for seizing Russian state assets and using them to fund Ukraine’s defense. Michael McFaul, a leading expert on Russian politics and foreign policy, summarizes some key points in a recent Washington Post article:
Since the war began, a broad coalition of countries has joined together to confiscate billions in Russian assets. Some of these assets belong to oligarchs who have propped up Putin’s system; by far the largest amount, though, is sitting in frozen accounts held by the Russian Central Bank. These funds amount to some $300 billion, of which the largest share has been seized by the Europeans. These funds should be deployed as soon as possible to help bring the war to an end and finance Ukraine’s reconstruction. Considering that Russia’s unprovoked war has inflicted hundreds of billions of dollars of damage on the Ukrainian economy, it’s only just that the international community should impose some of these costs on the Russian state itself….
[S]ome experts worry that transfer of these funds will set a negative precedent for global financial institutions. I disagree. Seizing assets of the Russian state after Putin invaded and annexed Ukraine sets a positive, deterrent precedent to other world leaders thinking about using military force to annex territory. And we should not want criminals to do their banking in the democratic world.
A recent Renew Democracy Initiative analysis by a team of lawyers led by Harvard law Prof. Laurence Tribe does a thorough job of addressing a variety of possible legal objections to such a step. But scholars such as Lee Buchheit and Paul Stephan, and Yale Law School Prof. Oona Hathaway have raised a variety of objections and reservations.
I won’t try to go over all the law and policy issues here, and some are outside my areas of expertise. But I will cover some points that are within my competence, most notably those relating to property rights.
The most obvious moral objection is that the property in question ultimately belongs to the Russian people, and cannot legitimately be taken away from them by foreign powers. While the Putin regime is to blame for the war and resulting atrocities, most ordinary Russians are not. This objection might carry some weight if it were at all likely that Putin’s government would use this property for purposes that benefit the Russian people. But given the nature of his authoritarian state, that is highly unlikely. If the present Russian government regains control of these assets, it is more likely to use them to further oppress Russians and Ukrainians like.
Using the assets to help Ukraine defeat Russia increases the likelihood of regime change in the latter state, or at least of some degree of