US supports transferring some seized Russian assets to Ukraine

The Biden administration is set to ask Congress for legislative changes that would make it easier for the U.S. Justice Department to seize Russian oligarch assets and transfer part of the money to Ukraine, Attorney General Merrick Garland said on Tuesday.

“We’ve been very carefully examining that question, and I expect that there will be requests for legislative changes,” Garland told members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee when asked if the Justice Department needed any additional authorities to target Russian oligarchs tied to the Kremlin.

“These could go particularly in the way that we do the forfeitures, to make it easier for us to do the forfeitures,” Garland said. “Also, the possibility of taking the money out of the forfeiture fund that we collect this way and sending it to Ukraine.”

Asset forfeiture is a court-authorized legal proceeding that allows the government to take possession of property that is used illegally, obtained from illegal activity or used to facilitate a crime.

Properties and other assets of wealthy associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin that are seized and “forfeited” by the Justice Department are put into the department’s Assets Forfeiture Fund. The proceeds are typically used for investigative purposes, asset forfeiture operations and other expenses.

Garland said the administration would support allowing some of the Russians’ assets subject to forfeiture to “go directly to Ukraine.”

“We’re hard at work on it, and I expect very soon, within days, probably, that the administration will be able to present some request,” Garland said of the administration’s proposal.

Members of the subcommittee expressed support for stepped-up efforts to target Putin’s associates.

“I think there will be a receptive audience to give you more money if that’s what it takes to go after the people who profited from destroying the Russian economy,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told Garland.

The U.S. proposal comes amid growing calls for the Biden administration to liquidate and transfer the seized Russian assets to Ukraine, with some legal experts suggesting that Biden already has the authority to act under a 1977 statute.

Spokespeople at the Justice Department and the White House did not immediately respond to questions about the proposal.

Last month, the Justice Department set up Task Force KleptoCapture to help enforce sanctions against Russian government officials and oligarchs, targeting their yachts, jets, real estate and other assets.

The goal was to pressure Putin to end his devastating invasion of Ukraine by targeting his closest associates who have faced wide-ranging U.S. and international sanctions since the start of the Ukraine war.

As part of their effort to “seize and freeze” Russian oligarch assets, the Justice and Treasury departments have also created a separate outfit known as REPO – Russian Elites, Proxies and Oligarchs. Garland said international cooperation to enforce sanctions against Russia has been “heartwarming.”

Earlier this month, the Justice Department said its first seizure was a $90 million, 77-meter luxury yacht belonging to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg that Spanish law enforcement took control of at Washington’s request. Vekselberg is one of 50 Russians the Treasury Department has identified as priorities for U.S. sanctions enforcement.

“Together, with our international partners, we will do everything possible to hold accountable any individual whose criminal acts enable the Russian government to continue its unjust war,” Garland said in announcing the seizure.

During his testimony on Tuesday, Garland condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine, saying that the “horrible atrocities” that are being seen in videos and photos from the country “are the kinds of things anybody growing up in the 20th century never expected to see in the 21st again.” (VOA)

•PHOTO: Merrick Garland