While the world is distracted, members of Congress are writing bills designed to steal Russia’s money and give it to Ukraine. In this episode, listen to the pitch being made to Congress as we examine if this is a good idea.
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Recommended Congressional Dish Episodes
Taking the Russian money: is it legal?
“Once More on the REPO Act.” Lee C. Buchheit and Paul Stephan. October 20, 2023. Lawfare.
“Yellen Endorses Windfall Tax on Frozen Russian Assets” Chelsey Dulaney and Andrew Duehren. October 11, 2023. The Wall Street Journal.
“The Other Counteroffensive to Save Ukraine.” Lawrence H. Summers, Philip Zelikow, and Robert B. Zoellick. June 15, 2023. Foreign Affairs.
“Giving Russian Assets to Ukraine—Freezing Is Not Seizing.” Paul Stephan. April 26, 2022. Lawfare.
“$100 Billion. Russia’s Treasure in the U.S. Should Be Turned Against Putin.” Laurence H. Tribe and Jeremy Lewin. April 15, 2022. The New York Times.
“Executive Order on Blocking Property with Respect to Specified Harmful Foreign Activities of the Government of the Russian Federation.” April 15, 2021. President Joe Biden. White House Briefing Room.
What we’re being told about Ukraine
“To date, Ukraine has reclaimed more than half the territory Russia seized since 2022. Arms and equipment announced today as part of continued U.S. assistance will help sustain Ukraine’s battlefield needs.” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken [@SecBlinken]. November 3, 2023. Twitter.
“Ukraine in maps: Tracking the war with Russia” Visual Journalism Team. September 29, 2023. BBC News.
“Mapping Ukraine’s counteroffensive.” June 2023. Reuters.
“Gaza’s hospitals report growing threats from Israeli airstrikes.” Jaclyn Diaz and Aya Batrawy. November 7, 2023. NPR.
“Biden Wants Arms Deals With Israel to Be Done in Complete Secrecy.” Sharon Zhang. November 2, 2023.
October 31, 2023
Senate Appropriations Committee
- Antony Blinken, Secretary, U.S. Department of State
- Lloyd Austin, Secretary, U.S. Department of Defense
1:05:05 Secretary of State Antony Blinken: If you look at total assistance to Ukraine going back to February of 2022, the United States has provided about $75 billion our allies and partners $90 billion. If you look at budget support, the United States has provided about $22 billion during that period, allies and partners $49 billion during that period; military support, we provided about $43 billion allies and partners $33 billion; humanitarian assistance, the United States $2.3 billion allies and partners 4.5 billion, plus another $18 to $20 billion in caring for the many refugees who went to Europe and outside of Ukraine.
October 19, 2023
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (The Helsinki Commission)
- Eliav Benjamin, Deputy Head of Mission, The Embassy of Israel to the United States
- Jamil N. Jaffer, Founder and Executive Director, National Security Institute at George Mason University
- Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, Senior Vice President, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies
- Dr. Dan Twining, President, International Republican Institute
- Oksana Markarova, Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States of America
19:25 Eliav Benjamin: Understanding in the most unequivocal manner and in the clearest way that these are evil people. If we can even call them people. This is Israel’s 9/11, only if you take the proportion of the size of Israel, this is 9/11 times 10, at least.
20:45 Eliav Benjamin: Because these terrorist organizations are not only against Israelis or against Jews, and not only in Israel, they are against mankind and anything which calls for decency, any entity and anybody who calls for protecting human rights and protecting individuals and protecting civilians.
21:25 Eliav Benjamin: Hamas have no value for human life, while Israel is doing its utmost to protect human life, including Palestinians in Gaza by even calling for them to go down south so that they won’t be affected by the war. Hamas is doing everything in its power to harm civilians, to harm its own civilians. And everything that Hamas is committing — and committed — is no less than war crimes. And if you want crimes against humanity, and this is while Israel is working within the international human rights law, and within the military law.
28:15 Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN): Ambassador we have attempted to get some monies to from Putin and from the Soviet Un — the oligarchs, to help rebuild Ukraine. Do you have any new information about that, or concerns? Oksana Markarova: Thank you for this question. First of all, I think it’s very just that all this horrible destruction, which only for the first year of the war the World Bank estimated at $411 billion — just the physical destruction — has to be compensated and paid for by the Russians. So with regard to the Russian oligarchs and everyone who finances this war, supports this war, thanks to Congress we already have the possibility to confiscate it through the courts and DOJ has already moved forward with one confiscation of malfeasance money — $5.4 million, and others. It is going to take time. But I think the major question right now to discuss with all the G7 is the Russian sovereign assets. We know that there are at least in the vicinity of 300-400 billion, or maybe even more, frozen by G7 countries. Not only that, but we recently discovered there are about $200 billion that are frozen in the Euroclear system in Belgium. So I’m very glad that there are more renewed talks right now between the G7 Ministers of Finance on how to confiscate and how to better use this money even now. I think we have to join forces there because again, we’re very grateful for the American support, we are very much counting on this additional supplementary budget, but at the end of the day, it’s not the American, or Ukrainian, or European taxpayers who have to pay for this, it is the Russians who have to pay for their damages. We look forward to working with Congress and we’re working very actively with the administration, the State Department and Treasury, on how to better do it. As the former Minister of Finance, I not only believe — I know — that it can be done and I know this is a very specific case, that will not jeopardize the untouchability of the Sovereign Money, which is normal in the normal circumstances. This is a very specific case of a country that has been condemned by 154 countries in the UN for the illegal aggression. We have in all three major cases, the cases against Russia on both aggression and genocide and everything else. And it’s only natural and just to use the sovereign assets as well as the private assets of Putin’s oligarchs to compensate and to pay this.
32:50 Eliav Benjamin: Look at the charter of Hamas, which calls for destruction, annihilation of Jews, of Israel and yes, wants to control everything from the Mediterranean Sea until the Jordan River.
33:00 Eliav Benjamin: That is their aspiration, that is what they want to do, with zero care about civilians, including their own whom they take us human shields. As we’re speak now, they’re firing rockets from underneath hospitals, from underneath schools, from underneath mosques, from within residential areas, putting their own people at risk and sending them to die as well. This is not what Israel is about, but this is what Hamas is about and has been about. And now once and for all, unfortunately, really unfortunately, it took such a horrific war that they launched on Israel for the whole world to realize what Hamas is really about and what we’ve been saying for so many years that Hamas stands for. But it’s not only Hamas: it’s Hamas, it’s the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, it’s Hezbollah, it’s all of these terrorist organizations who have zero care about human beings. This is who we should go after, and make sure they don’t do any more harm.
39:10 Jamil Jaffer: It was the single deadliest day in Israel’s history, single deadliest day for the worldwide Jewish community since the Holocaust. The equivalent of over a dozen 9/11 attacks on a population adjusted basis. Let me say it again. On the day of the 9/11 attacks, we had about 280 million Americans and we lost approximately 3000 Americans that day. Israel has lost 1400 have their own in a population of approximately 9 million — over a dozen 9/11 attacks.
41:15 Jamil Jaffer: There’s a key connection between these two fights. We know that Iran today supplies all manner of drones to Russia in its fight in Ukraine. We know that Iran has troops on the ground in Ukraine, training Russians on the use of those drones. We know that Iran is considering providing short range ballistic missiles to Russia, in that conflict. Russia, for its part, has provided Iran with its primary source of Conventional Munitions and nuclear technology for the vast majority of the time. Now, the key connection between these organizations is important to note. It’s not just Russia and Iran; it’s China and North Korea as well. These are all globally repressive nation states. They repress their own people, they hold them back, they give them no opportunity, and then they seek to export that repression to other parts of the globe, first in their immediate neighborhood, and then more broadly across the world. These nations are increasingly working together. We see China and Russia’s no-limits partnership. We see President Xi saying to President Putin, in an off hand conversation that the world heard, that there are changes that haven’t been seen in 100 years, and Russia and China are leading those changes. We know that for decades, Iran and North Korea have cooperated on ballistic missile and nuclear technology. We know that today in the fight in Gaza, Hamas is using North Korean rocket propelled grenades. So the reality is these globally repressive nation states have long been working together. And it is incumbent upon the United States to stand with our friends in Ukraine and our allies in Israel in this fight against global repression.
41:35 Dr. Dan Twining: It’s vital not to mistake Hamas’s control of Gaza with legitimacy. There have been no elections in Gaza since 2006. Hamas will not hold them because it thinks it will lose. Polling from September, a month ago, shows that only a quarter of Palestinians support Hamas leading the Palestinian people. Before the conflict, 77% of Palestinians told pollsters they wanted elections as soon as possible. A super majority tells pollsters that Hamas is corrupt. It is a terrorist organization, not a governing authority that seeks better lives for Palestinians. Residents of Gaza suffer poverty, isolation, and violence at its hands.
43:25 Dr. Jonathan Schanzer: Israel has just suffered in Iran-sponsored massacre, Ukraine is struggling to repel Russian forces, and Taiwan watches with grave concern as China threatens to invade. America must view these three embattled democracies as important assets. And it must view these three adversaries as a threat to the US-led world order. As we speak, there is a very real possibility of a regional war erupting in the Middle East. The Islamic Republic of Iran has armed and funded Hamas and Hezbollah along with other factions in the region. Recent reports point to the existence of an Iranian-led nerve center in Beirut that is designed to help these terrorist groups target Israel more efficiently. Fortunately, the IDF has thwarted Iranian efforts to create a new terror proxy in the Golan Heights. Israel has repeatedly destroyed most, if not all, of what Iran is trying to stand up there. However, Iran-backed militias do remain in Syria, and Russia’s presence in Syria is complicated all of this. Moscow’s missile defense systems have forced Israel to take significant precautions in the ongoing effort to prevent the smuggling of advanced Iranian weapons from Syria to Lebanon. These are precision guided munitions. We’ve never seen a non-state actor or a terrorist group acquire these before and Russia is making this more difficult. The operations to destroy these weapons in Syria are ongoing. They often take place with Russian knowledge. It’s an uneasy arrangement and because of that, the Syrian front is still manageable, but Russia’s role in the region is far from positive. Moscow continues to work closely with both Iran and Hezbollah. In fact, Russian-Iranian relations have deepened considerably since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. This goes beyond the sanctions busting that was the basis of their relationship before all this started. Russia has received UAVs from Iran, which we’ve heard today, Tehran has sent advisors to train Russian personnel, and since last summer, Russia has launched over 2000 Iranian UAVs into Ukraine. Moscow now wants to produce some of these UAVs domestically and so Russia and Iran are currently working together to increase the drones’ range and speed. Iran has supplied other material to Russia like artillery shells and rockets. In return, Tehran wants Russia to provide fighter jets, attack helicopters, radar and combat trainer aircraft, and more. Moscow has sent to Tehran some captured Western weapons from Ukraine. These include javelin, NLAW anti-tank guided missiles, and Stinger MANPADS. Amidst all of this, on top of it all, concerns are mounting about a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Beijing has openly intimidated the island nation. Within a 24 hour time span in July, 16 PLA warships approached Taiwan, accompanied with over 100 different aircraft sorties. China’s calculus about an invasion of Taiwan could be influenced heavily right now by what the United States does in Ukraine and in Israel. Ihe landscape is clear: China, Iran and Russia are working together. Our policy must be to deny them the ability to threaten our friends and our interests.
47:45 Dr. Jonathan Schanzer: It’s great news. I was gonna recommend it, but it’s already happened: the United States has sent two of its Iron Dome batteries based in Guam to Israel, en route already.
52:15 Dr. Dan Twining: If America’s three greatest adversaries are going to actively collaborate in armed attacks on our allies, that’s all the more reason for us to ensure that friendly democracies prevail in the fight. Giving Ukraine and Israel what they need to restore their sovereignty and security is essential. Appeasing aggression in one theater only invites belligerence in another. Make no mistake, China is watching our reaction to the wars on Ukraine and Israel with great interest. If we don’t show the will and staying power to help our friends win, we only embolden Chinese designs in Asia. Defeating aggression in Europe and the Middle East is central to deterring aggression in Asia.
1:09:55 Dr. Jonathan Schanzer: I am going to use the current crisis right now to sort of explain how America can get a win. That attack by Hamas was sponsored by Iran. Hamas is an Iran-back terrorist organization that also enjoys the support of China and Russia. As Israel has now readied to go into the Gaza Strip and to destroy this terrorist organization with the support of the United States, we’re now seeing Iran-backed proxies threaten a much wider war. We’re watching Hezbollah and Lebanon, Shiite militias in Syria, potentially other groups in other parts of the region. What needs to happen here right now is America needs to determine the outcome of this conflict. And by that, I mean it needs to deter Iran, it needs to deter Hezbollah and any other actor that might intervene, and force them to watch helplessly as our ally destroys Hamas. Watch them look on helplessly as one of their important pieces is removed from the chessboard. If we can do that, then I think we’re now in the process of reestablishing deterrence after having lost it for many years.
1:14:15 Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI): Along with Ranking Member [Jim] Risch, I’m the lead on the what we call the REPO Act, which would authorize the President to work with other countries in Europe that are also home to frozen Russian sovereign assets, and create a procedure for seizing those assets and directing them to Ukraine to be used for rebuilding and other purposes. I think there are mixed feelings in the administration about this, but they seem to be moving our way. I’d love to have your thoughts on the value of grabbing those sovereign assets, not just as additional resources for Ukraine, but also as a powerful signal to Putin that his behavior is going to have real punishment and hitting him good and hard right in the wallet, I think, would be a good added signal.
1:15:20 Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI): The second is simply to make sure that we do a better job of grabbing Russian oligarch assets. We have a predicament right now, which is that if you’re a US citizen, and you’re driving down the highway and you’ve got $400,000 in unexplained cash in your car, the police can pull you over and they can seize that. If you are a foreign, Russian, crooked oligarch, and you have a $400 million yacht someplace, you have more rights than that American citizen, in terms of defending your yacht. It’s a very simple procedure, it’s called “in rem.” You move on the yacht rather than having to chase through all the ownership structures. And I would very much like to see us pass a bill that allows us to proceed against foreign oligarchs’, criminals’, and kleptocrats’ assets in rem.
1:16:50 Dr. Jonathan Schanzer: The seizing of assets and redirecting them to Ukraine, I think, sounds like a solid thing for the United States to do. I think, though, it would make sense to do this with a coalition of countries. So that the US is not singled out — Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI): That’s what the legislation requires. In fact, the bulk of the funds are actually held in European countries, so acting on our own would not be sensible. Dr. Jonathan Schanzer: It wouldn’t be effective, correct. So getting the Europeans on board, and by the way, getting the Europeans to chip in a bit more, just as we are, I think is also a very sound policy. As far as targeting the oligarch assets, I fully understand your frustration. When I worked at the Treasury Department trying to track those kinds of assets was never easy. We did work with a sort of shorthand version of, if we’re 80% sure that we know what we’re dealing with we’re going to move first and then adjudicate after it’s been done. And by and large, that worked out very well during the height of the war on terror. And there was an urgency that I think needs to be felt now, as we think about targeting Russian assets too.
1:18:00 Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI): To follow me on my path of in rem Latinate legal terms. There’s also qui tam out there, which allows individuals to bring fraud actions in the name of the United States, and if it turns out there really is fraud, they get a share of it. It would be nice to have people who work for, let’s say, a Russian oligarch to be able to be paid a bit of a bounty if they come in and testify and say, “Yep, definitely his boat every time we go out, he’s on it. Every time the guests come they’re his guests and we call him boss.” Things like that can make a big difference, so we’re trying to push that as well. Dr. Jonathan Schanzer: That sounds like something for the Rewards for Justice program at the State Department. They might be able to expand it. We already have bounties for those that provide evidence leading to arrests of terrorists, why not oligarchs? Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI): Correct.
1:24:40 Dr. Jonathan Schanzer: Qatar has, for the last 10 or 12 years, had a an external headquarters. Some of [Hamas’s] political leadership has been based there: Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshaal both call Qatar home. Of course, this is not new for the Qataris. They’ve also hosted all manner of other terrorist organizations in that country. It’s the Taliban, al Qaeda, ISIS. It’s well known at this point that Qatar is a hospitable place. They just don’t agree with our definition of terrorism. Fundraising takes place there, all sorts of organizational activities take place there, and people are free to come and go. It is a safe haven for them. It is extremely dangerous that we have bestowed upon that country the label of major non-NATO ally, and that this is allowed to continue. They’re offering right now their “good offices” — I’ll put those in air quotes — to try to negotiate the release of the 302 hostages. This is not in Qatar’s is interest. They are advocating on behalf of Hamas, as they have been for a long time. This should not be allowed to stand.
1:28:10 Dr. Jonathan Schanzer: Hezbollah is based in Lebanon primarily, although they’ve got a significant base of operations in Latin America right now, and of course they’ve got a lot of operatives running around in Tehran. They are a wholly-owned subsidiary of the regime in Iran. Just to give you a sense of the threat, right now Hezbollah is threatening to open up a second front with Israel. While the fighting rages in Gaza, in the north of Israel there is a second front that could very well be open. There have been dozens of rockets that have been fired, dozens of anti-tank missiles infiltrations into northern Israel. This is very disconcerting. This is one of the things that I think the President is trying to deter at this moment, to deter a second front from opening. Hezbollah is considered to have an army that is equal in strength to the average European army. It has 150,000 rockets right now facing south at Israel. It’s got precision guided munitions that could hit strategic targets, like Israel’s nuclear facility, or like its chemical plant. These are things that could create catastrophic attacks, and we could be hours or days or weeks away from watching those threats materialize. And so this is why it is imperative right now that the US mount the deterrence that is necessary to stare down Iran and to stare down Hezbollah and to allow Israel to be able to do what it needs to in Gaza and hopefully end this crisis.
1:31:15 Rep. Marc Veasey (D-TX): What does it look like if a Palestinian family of four is being interviewed for safe passage into a neighboring country or nearby country? What exactly does that look like? What does that processing and that vetting look like? Dr. Jonathan Schanzer: I’m going to make a suggestion here. I don’t know how that kind of vetting can happen. You know, you’re looking at a territory roughly the size of Washington DC, with 2.2 million people that had been subjected to Hamas rule for 16 years. How you start to figure out who’s okay and who’s not at this stage in the game, who’s a threat and who isn’t, is going to be really challenging. I wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal with a colleague of mine, Mark Dubowitz, our CEO, on Monday. I want to make this suggestion: I’ve already identified a number of the countries that have been Hamas supporters over the years, those that have financed and provided the weapons and the training to Hamas. I think there should be significant pressure on those countries to take in the refugees. Have a clear message from the United States that they created this problem, and it is now their problem to take care of these 2 million people. Quite frankly, I don’t care who’s radicalized when they go to these countries that have been supporting a radical cause for as long as they have. I think this would be justice.
Committee Roundtable on Making Putin Pay: The Case for Transferring Russian Sovereign Assets to Ukraine
October 18, 2023
House Committee on Foreign Affairs
Philip Zelikow, Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia
Rebeccah Heinrichs, Senior Fellow and Director of the Keystone Defense Initiative at the Hudson Institute
14:35 Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX): The Russian sovereign assets is a winner in my judgment. If we can tap into the right — the very people who started this war and this conflict, in my judgment, should be paying for the cost, and not as much the US taxpayer. And that’s why I introduced the REPO Act, the bipartisan, bicameral legislation that demands that the Biden administration transfer frozen Russian sovereign assets to the Ukraine effort. It’s beyond time that Russia pay for the war that it created. My bill prohibits the Biden administration from unfreezing Russian sovereign assets until Russia ends its unprovoked war of aggression and agrees to compensate Ukraine for the damages it has inflicted.
16:05 Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX):
To be clear, the war crimes and genocide committed by Russia cannot be reversed by money alone.
22:30 Rep. French Hill (R-AK): My approach was crafted to be consistent with US Policy and International Law by amending the International Emergency Economic Powers Act IEEPA, and using its established framework and existing definitions. As a former Treasury official, in my view, this is a better legislative approach. This is consistent with well established international precedent, whereby the United States work with international partners to establish a fund like we saw in Afghanistan in 2022. The Iran-US Claims Tribunal in 1981, the UN compensation fund for Kuwait in 1991, following the invasion by Iraq.
22:40 Rep. French Hill (R-AK): I too have introduced a bill on this topic, HR 5370. And I appreciate the Foreign Affairs staff working with me on that. My bill would give the President authority to seize and transfer title of Russian sovereign assets within the United States jurisdiction into an international fund for the sole purpose of Ukraine’s eventual reconstruction and humanitarian relief. I’m grateful to Chairman McCaul and I co-sponsor his bill on this topic, as well for his leadership.
24:10 Rep. French Hill (R-AK): Considering most Russian sovereign assets are actually located outside the United States, it’s important for our partners and allies around the world to introduce and pass similar companion legislation rather than having the US act unilaterally.
24:30 Rep. French Hill (R-AK): Let me be clear, I consider Russian Federation sovereign assets inclusive of all state owned enterprise assets and those of Russian publicly traded companies, like Gazprom, that are controlled by more than 50% by the Russian Federation.
26:30 Philip Zelikow: Economic warfare is the real center of gravity in this war. Economic warfare is the center of gravity in the war. I know we all watch the daily updates from the battle front lines. You know, this movement here, that movement there. This is a war of attrition. It’s going to be decided by economic and industrial staying power as the war continues almost certainly into 2025 and perhaps beyond.
27:00 Philip Zelikow: In that struggle, the economic warfare against Russia has achieved some gains, and will have some more gains over the long haul. Russia’s economic warfare against Ukraine has been devastating and is not sufficiently appreciated. Ukraine lost 30% of its GDP in the first year of the war. 1/3 of the population of Ukraine is displaced, half externally half internally. Russia is waging economic warfare on three main fronts. It’s destroying Ukraine’s infrastructure, and will do another energy infrastructure war this winter, for which it’s gearing up, including with North Korean weapons and Iranian weapons. Point two: they’ve destroyed Ukraine’s ability to export through the Black Sea except for a trickle, which was the fundamental business model of a commodity exporting country. Point three: they have destroyed Ukraine’s civil aviation. Ukraine has no civil aviation. Any of you who’ve traveled, as I have, to Ukraine will notice that you can’t fly in the country, which makes travel and business in the country now back to the era of the railroads before there were airplanes. So the the Russian economic warfare against Ukraine is devastating. And as time passes, this is going to have deep effects on the ability of Ukraine’s economy and society to hold together, which will play out politically. So point one: economic warfare is the true center of gravity in the war.
28:35 Philip Zelikow: Two, the Russian assets are the key strategy to change the outcome. The Russian assets are at least $280 billion. Now, even in our debased day and age, that’s a lot of money. It’s a lot of money in the context of the Ukrainian economy. Even using very conservative multipliers of how much private investment the public investment can unlock, let’s say one to one, the impact of this money on the whole future prospects of Ukraine and its staying power are decisive. Otherwise, they’re relying on US and European taxpayers whose readiness you can gauge. So this is potentially the decisive fulcrum of the economic warfare and Ukraine’s prospects in the war.
29:25 Philip Zelikow: So, third point, why has this been so hard? First reason was there was a knee jerk neuralgia on the part of bankers and financiers to the actual confiscation of Russian assets in the foreign exchange holdings, with much talk of losing confidence in the dollar in the euro. On analysis, these worries quickly fall away, which is one reason that I worked with my colleagues, Larry Summers, the former Treasury secretary, and Bob Zoellick, the former president of the World Bank, who do know something about international finance to debunk those concerns. And I’d be glad to go into more detail about why the concerns about the dollar or the euro turn out to be overblown when they’re analyzed.
30:10 Philip Zelikow: The other concern was how do we do this legally? There’s been a ton of legal confusion about this. This bill will help dispel that legal confusion.
30:30 Philip Zelikow: What about sovereign immunity? Sovereign immunity is a doctrine that only exists in the context of national courts trying to usurp sovereign authority in a situation where it’s sovereign on sovereign, whereas in this bill, there would be an act of state that goes after Russian sovereign property. There is no such thing as immunity; there is no doctrine of sovereign immunity. Ordinarily, under international law, if one sovereign takes another sovereign’s property, then the loser is entitled to compensation for that nationalization or expropriation. So why isn’t Russia entitled for that compensation in this case? Because it’s a lawful state countermeasure. Countermeasures are different from sanctions. And countermeasures — and this is a well recognized body of law — you are allowed to do things that would ordinarily violate your sovereign obligations to a fellow sovereign, because that sovereign has committed such extreme outlaw behavior, that the countermeasure is a lawful recourse. And that is exactly the extreme case we have here. There is a well codified body of law on this, and Russia has hit every one of the marks for a set of lawful state countermeasures that deprives them of any right to compensation when states take their money and then use it, putting it in escrow to compensate the victims of Russia’s aggression.
37:35 Rebeccah Heinrichs: The United States directly benefits from Ukraine’s battlefield successes as Russia remains a top tier adversary of the United States. These are the weapons that Americans made and designed specifically to go after the kinds of things that the Ukrainians are destroying in the Russian military.
39:55 Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX): The EU has a plan just to tax frozen assets and send those proceeds to Ukraine. Our Treasury Secretary, Miss Yellen recently claimed that transferring sovereign assets to Ukraine was not legal. Do you agree with that, and if not, what is your opinion from a legal standpoint? Philip Zelikow: I think Secretary Yellen has now revised her view of this matter, having had a chance to be informed by some of the legal work that’s been done since she first made that impromptu remark. There is the legal authority both under domestic law and international law, and the bill this committee is considering would reaffirm, consolidate, and elaborate that authority. So legally, this can be done.
40:55 Philip Zelikow: What the EU came up with in May was the idea — they were encountering a lot of resistance to actually taking the Russian money, so they said, Well, can we come up with something, since a lot of these as the securities have now matured and are in cash and Euroclear, mainly — the clearing house in Brussels — is now managing the cash on behalf of Russia, because Russia is no longer able to manage it. So can we do something with the interest? And by the way, the EU couldn’t get that through in June. Ursula von der Leyen couldn’t get that adopted over, principally, French and German opposition at the time. So they’re talking about just taking this interest. As a legal matter, if you have the legal right to take the interest, you have the legal right to take the principle. This was a cosmetic idea trying to overcome the opposition they had there. It’s kind of a situation where, as one of my colleagues in this effort, Larry Tribe, has put it as well, instead of crossing the Rubicon, they’re kind of wading in. From a legal point of view, it’s actually clearer to do the transfer for Ukraine than to try to expropriate the money using tax authorities, which makes it look like you’re expropriating it for your country, rather than for the benefit of the victims, which is a much cleaner, legal way to do it. So they ended up, for political reasons, with a half measure that takes only a tiny fraction of what they should and does so in ways that are actually legally awkward. I understand why they are where they are, but as they process this, I think they’re just going to have to step up to going ahead and crossing the Rubicon.
50:20 Philip Zelikow: The whole argument that I made in an article with Summers and Zoellick in Foreign Affairs is that actually, this is a strategy for victory. You put this enormous war chest and the multiplier of private investment into play. And what you can envision is a whole new European recovery program, anchored on the rebuilding of Ukraine that not only saves Ukraine, revitalizes it, but links it to the EU accession process, to the enlargement of the European Union. In other words, to the victory of the whole cause of freedom, in a way almost regardless of where the final battle line ends up being in Ukraine, Ukraine will be growing with bright prospects, part of a Europe with brighter prospects, because of its alignment with the free world.
51:25 Philip Zelikow: When people worry about the significance of this in foreign exchange, I ask them to just remember two numbers 93 and three. If you look at the percentage of foreign exchange holdings held in the world today, 60% United States, 23% Euro, 6% yen, 4% Sterling: that’s 93. The percentage of foreign exchange holdings in Chinese renminbi: three. And the Chinese were really encouraged that it’s gone up from 2.5 to 3 in recent years. So when you look at 93 to three, that’s what you get when we work with our allies in a concerted economic strategy. We can move on the Russian assets, and there’s really no choice except to stick with the currencies of the free world because they’re still the only basis for being a participant in the world economy.
54:20 Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-MI): Who actually has the authority to take possession of it? Because as you point out, if you’ve got the legal right to the interest, you got the legal right to the principal. Who is granted that authority? And then who is granted the authority to distribute that? Philip Zelikow: So the theory is that the national governments can transfer any of the Russian state assets in their jurisdiction into escrow accounts for the benefit of the victims, as a state countermeasure to Russia’s aggression. So the way that would work is under the President’s IEEPA authority, he could transfer all this — and there are precedents for this — into an escrow account held in the States and then an international escrow account, with this limited purpose of compensating the victims of Russian aggression, then you need to create an international mechanism, which the US would participate in creating, to then manage that distribution, which needs to have a proactive urgent speed of relevance. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-MI): That was what I was afraid of. If it just simply takes one participant to bog the whole thing down, guess what? It’s not going to work, in my humble opinion. Philip Zelikow: When they’re debating this in the EU, some people say we should have a new EU directive to govern this, but under our Common Foreign and Security Policy, one member like Hungary, for example, could botch that. So if you create something perhaps managed by the G7 Donor Coordination Platform, that is a relatively simple instrument in which the United States could play a part. One thing that you’ve done in the bill you’ve drafted, Mr. Chairman and Congresswoman Kaptur, is you’re creating mechanisms in which Congress has insight and some oversight into how the United States participates in that process, and what the mechanism does and how the money is spent, which I think is an appropriate role for the Congress. There are precedents for how to do this. The design of this international mechanism I’m discussing is both policy driven, but also has a reactive claim side, but can have some conditionality on reform and the EU accession process. That’s a heavy lift. Building that mechanism will be the biggest job since we built the Economic Cooperation Administration to run Marshall Plan aid 70 years ago. That serious work has not really begun, because we’re just working on the preliminary phase of mobilizing and using this money.
58:25 Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA): You believe the Administration, even without this bill, has authority right now to transfer the frozen Russian assets to Ukraine. Philip Zelikow: Yes, it does. It has it under the existing IEEPA authorities that the President has already invoked. The Renew Democracy Initiative has put out a really extensive legal brief that goes into great detail about this. I think actually the administration’s lawyers are coming around to the view that yes, they do have the authority under existing law. What the REPO Act does is, one, it reaffirms that, but two, it makes Congress a partner in this with regulation and oversight that’s an appropriate Congressional role. So by both reaffirming the authority and getting Congress to join the executive and doing this together I think it makes it a truly national effort with an appropriate Congressional part.
59:20 Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA): How would you respond to critics who say this would make it harder for other folks in the future to want to invest in the United States? Philip Zelikow: You can look at the numbers. After we froze Russian assets, everybody understood the political risks that might be involved with putting their money into dollar holdings. The Chinese called in all their bankers and asked them, “Do we have any other options?” That happened last year. You can just simply track what’s happened in the international financial markets and see how folks have now priced in that political risk. But the result is still very strong demand and interest in the dollar. But here again, to come back to Congressman [Gregory] Meeks point, by working with the Euro and the yen and Sterling, we give them no place to go. If they want to participate in the world economy, then they’re just going to have to invest in assets like that.
1:00:30 Rebeccah Heinrichs: The other thing that’s very interesting and good in the REPO bill that is different is this provision, Section 103, that would prohibit the release of blocked Russian sovereign assets. I think that’s an incredibly important element of this bill. That would remove the temptation for any kind of sweetener for the Russians to have access to these funds and leave Ukraine in a lurch whenever they have to rebuild their society. That’s a very important part of the bill.
1:01:10 Rep. Nathaniel Moran (R-TX): Why would it be better to transfer these assets for Ukraine’s direct benefit than to use them for leverage in negotiations and ending this conflict at some point? Rebeccah Heinrichs: It comes back down to the fundamental question at the end: who’s going to foot the bill for rebuilding Ukrainian society? Somebody’s going to have to do it. It should not be the American people primarily. They’re footing a pretty significant bill. I think that benefits American industry and benefits our own military, but this particular piece should be carried out by the perpetrators of this act. So I think that it’d be a mistake to hold that out as a sweetener to get the Russians to come to the end or the conclusion.
1:01:55 Rep. Nathaniel Moran (R-TX): Mr. Zelikow, you mentioned earlier in response to one of my colleague’s questions that it looks like that under current law under the IEEPA authorities, the president can do this activity now. Do you know why the President is not doing that? And if he chose to do that, could he do it immediately? Or is there any delay in that? Philip Zelikow: They could act immediately. They’ve delayed a long time, partly, to be very blunt — because I’ve been talking to a lot of people about this — they had very deep interagency disagreements inside the administration over how to proceed and they found that their bandwidth was totally overwhelmed by other Ukrainian-related concerns, and they didn’t give this heavy attention until fairly recently. And now that they have given it sustained attention, I think the President has actually settled, at a fundamental level, those interagency disputes and they are now moving forward to try to find a way to make this work.
1:02:50 Philip Zelikow: I think the point you raised a minute ago about whether we want to hold this back as leverage was one factor in the back of the minds of some people. I think as the war has continued on through this year, hopes of a quick settlement of the war have dissipated. I think they realize that this is going to be a long war. That sobering realization has kind of sunk in. Also, from a legal point of view, if you want to, you could credit the Russians in any peace negotiation. You can basically say this is a credit against your liability for the for rebuilding Ukraine.
1:04:55 Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA): As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, we have been to many European nations. To a nation, they say the United States is the indispensable partner here, and they say that with all humility and not blowing smoke. We visited the Hague and sat with lead prosecutor Khan, and everyone is talking about waiting us out. Not just waiting out Congress’s support, but waiting out the outcome of the next election. They asked us specifically about that. Mr. Putin is clearly waiting for the outcome of the next election in hopes that it will not be the reelection of Joe Biden, who I’m really proud is in Israel right now. Timing. How does this work? You already said it’s going to be into 2025. How do we use this leverage, this economic warfare as the center of gravity in this conflict, to bring the timing tighter to a successful conclusion for Ukraine? Philip Zelikow: So that’s a great question. And this is why action on this issue is so urgent now, because the operational timeline to stand this up on a massive multi 100 billion dollar scale is if we move on this in the next couple of months and mobilize the money. We could get an enormous operation up and running with a relatively secure source of funding by next year. If we get that up and running by the middle of next year, we then insulate ourselves, to some extent, against the kind of electoral risk to which you gently alluded.
1:07:55 Rep. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-NJ): If the United States did transfer Russian sovereign assets to Ukraine, how could Ukraine best use these in the near term? Philip Zelikow: In the near term, what they would do, I think, is begin undertaking a comprehensive program to shore up their infrastructure, withstand the coming Russian campaigns to further damage that and begin to rebuild the basic transportation infrastructure and other things that can then begin to unlock a really bright future for the rest of the Ukrainian economy. There are things that can be done then to move Ukrainian industry into new sectors. I think the Ukrainian goal is not just to restore what they had five years ago, but actually to use this as a way to build back better, to imagine a brighter future in partnership with Europe. And then if the money is managed well, this gives leverage to encourage the Ukrainian reform process as part of the EU accession. Putin’s whole effort here is, “if I can’t conquer Ukraine, I will wreck it and make it ungovernable,” and we’ll show decisively that that objective cannot be achieved.
1:10:35 Rebeccah Heinrichs: If I may, sir, another principle that has been misunderstood throughout this conflict is this notion of escalation. Escalation is not bad. It’s only bad if it’s the adversary who’s escalating to prevail. We want Ukraine to escalate to win, to convince the Russians to end the war. If you do not permit the Ukrainians to escalate, then you only have a long protracted war of attrition that none of us can afford.
1:12:05 Philip Zelikow: Whenever you do a large thing in international affairs, there are going to be unintended consequences from that, and rather than be dismissive about that concern, I’ll say if you embark on this, then people will be tempted to try to use these sorts of precedents against us. They’ll be limited in their ability to do that because of the fundamental places where money is held in the world economy. A lot of people don’t do business with the United States because they love us; they do business with us because they think it’s necessary. If they could expropriate our property with no penalty, they would. Venezuela tried that. Most of the world doesn’t want to follow Venezuela’s example. So yes, there are some potential unintended consequences of people trying to use this precedent. But one reason we’ve tried to set this under international law is to use the standards of international law to govern this countermeasure. International law allows these countermeasures, but it says you can only do this if the target country’s outlaw behavior is extreme, and there’s a standard for that. It turns out Russia totally meets that standard. This is the most extreme case of international aggression since the Second World War, bigger than Korea, bigger than Kuwait. But by setting that kind of standard, it makes that slippery slope a little less slippery.
1:14:25 Rep. Greg Stanton (D-AZ): There are some concerns that if we were to transfer these assets, use it for the benefit Ukraine, would there be an impact on the US dollar? Just get your thoughts on that? Philip Zelikow: Yeah, that’s why we got in some of the best people we could on international plans, just to do the analysis on that. 93% of the foreign exchange holdings are held in G7 countries and only 3% in renminbi. Running to the renminbi because they’re worried about the dollar is something people would do if they wanted to do it already. They’ve already priced in the political risk of dollar holdings after they’ve seen what we’ve done. And you can see their asset allocations. Now, the dollar is involved in 88% of all foreign commercial transactions on one side of the transaction or another. So it’s hard to run away from it, especially if the Euro, Yen, and Sterling are in there with you. There’s really kind of no place to go if you want to participate in the international economy. Working with Larry Summers, the former Treasury Secretary, Robert Zoellick, with Brad Setser, who studies international finance, we ran some numbers about worst case scenarios and so on, and we think that concern, which sounds good as a soundbite, it turns out on analysis, it fades away.
1:16:10 Philip Zelikow: The US only holds a fraction of the relevant Russian money because the Russians tried to get their money out of our jurisdiction. But when you go to Europe and ask them what’s holding them up, they all say “We’re waiting for the American lead.” So even though we may only hold a fraction of the money, we hold a lot more than a fraction of the relevant clout, and we need to go together, exactly as you imply.
September 28, 2023
House Committee on Foreign Affairs
Victoria Nuland, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, United States Department of State
Christopher P. Maier, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, United States Department of Defense
Caroline Krass, General Counsel, United States Department of Defense
Richard C. Visek, Acting Legal Adviser, United States Department of State
33:00 Victoria Nuland: First with regard to the Taliban, we’ve been very clear we’re going to judge the Taliban by their actions. It is our assessment that the Taliban have partially adhered to their counterterrorism commitments. We’ve seen them disrupt ISIS-K, for example. But there’s obviously plenty more to to do to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a safe haven, or return to safe haven, or persist as a safe haven. That said, I would note that the director of the National Counterterrorism Center Christy Abizaid recently said publicly that al Qaeda is at its historic nadir in Afghanistan, and its revival is unlikely.
34:20 Victoria Nuland: Iran is obviously a state sponsor of terrorism; it is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world.