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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 3/7/22

What's the difference between Russian and American oligarchs?

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Actually, not all that much. Which means it's really hard for sanctions to stick

We're sanctioning Russian oligarchs up the wazoo, hoping it's a way to get Putin to stop his deadly attack on Ukraine. But for this tactic to work (1) the U.S. and our allies must be able to locate and tie up Russian oligarchic wealth, and (2) Russian oligarchs must have enough power to stop Putin. Let's take them one at a time:

Can we locate and tie up the wealth of Russian oligarchs?

Anecdotally, sanctions on the oligarchs appear to be working. Last Sunday, billionaire industrialist Oleg Deripaska (on the U.S. sanctions list) and banker Mikhail Fridman (on the EU's) both publicly urged an end to Putin's war. Billionaire businessman Roman Abramovich has put his British soccer club up for sale and vowed to donate the proceeds to "all victims of the war in Ukraine." Banker and entrepreneur Oleg Tinkov told his 634,000 Instagram followers last week that "innocent people are dying in Ukraine now, every day, this is unthinkable and unacceptable."

But are these sanctions really biting? This is where a comparison of Russian oligarchs with American oligarchs comes in.

While Russian oligarchs (Russia's richest 0.01 percent) have hidden an estimated $200 billion offshore (over half of their financial wealth), American oligarchs - America's 765 billionaires - have hidden $1.2 trillion (about 4 percent of their wealth), mostly to avoid paying taxes on it.

While American oligarchs park their income and wealth in tax havens such as the Cayman Islands, Russian oligarchs have hidden their most valuable assets in the United States and Europe. The reason they do so is telling: Western democracies follow the rule of law. Under such laws, before a government can seize property it must follow lengthy and elaborate legal processes. As a result, American and European governments are finding their hands tied in actually taking control of the assets of Russian oligarchs.

American law makes it difficult even to discover what Russian oligarchs own in the United States because they've hidden their assets behind complex trusts and shell corporations. American laws governing taxes, corporations, transportation, and banking are wonderfully convenient for the world's oligarchs. One out of every six aircraft in the United States, for example, is registered through trusts, Delaware corporations, and even post office box addresses, making it almost impossible to discover their true owners.

This isn't an argument against sanctioning Russian oligarchs. It's just that we need to be clear-eyed about how difficult it is to do so.

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Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has a new film, "Inequality for All," to be released September 27. He blogs at

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