March 17, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Why Freeze Russian Assets? Satter Explains How Oligarchs Amassed Wealth and Power

Why did the United States and Europe impose new sanctions on 11 Russian officials today? How can freezing assets and banning visas affect the diplomatic efforts?

David Satter described the oligarchs that rule Russia—and until recent weeks ruled Ukraine—and how they unscrupulously amassed their wealth—such as the assets targeted today. He spoke as part of the Contemporary History Institute Speaker Series March 13.

David SatterRussian oligarchs “don’t fear the West. They are held together only by their shared greed,” said Satter, a journalist who has followed Russian events for almost four decades—until he became the first U.S. correspondent to be expelled since the Cold War earlier just a few months ago.

“The situation in Ukraine … is a symptom of the general crisis of the post-Soviet world. And it’s a direct threat to the rule of the criminal oligarchy that is in charge in Russia. It’s this fact that explains much of what we’re seeing now, politically in relation to Ukraine and militarily in relation to the Crimea,” he said.

“You can truly say that the fall of the Soviet Union ushered in a period of intense negative competition in which the most unscrupulous, the most corrupt, the most unprincipled rose to the top…. It was not a democratic, law-abiding, ethically based society. Where emerged were kleptocracies in each of the former republics.

“They have no ideals, and this is reflected in the fact that many of the people who are the loudest in their denunciations of the West and in their support for Putin keep all of their assets in the West….They just go to Russia to make money and then quickly transport it to a safe haven.”

“Under these circumstances we see that the real mechanism for the seizure of Crimea, the anti-Western propaganda, the accusations against the demonstrators in Kiev—it’s not as some people have said a desire to reconstitute the Soviet Union. It’s not lust for territory; Russia has plenty of territory. It’s a desire to protect their ill-gotten gains. And to prevent at all costs the Ukrainian example from being contagious and inspiring similar events in Russia,” he says.

“The Russian regime understands that they may find themselves with very few defenses if they really face an indignant public that demands the rights that it does not have,” Satter said.

“The lack of patriotism on the part of the ruling group in Russia is really striking,” says. “They can leave at a moment’s notice. Who’s going to fight for that regime?”

In Ukraine, “the very lack of law that made it possible for the government to misuse its authority so thoroughly in order to create mega-magnates in the person of government officials also results in the situation in which the average person is totally without protection in his day-to-day life…. For the average citizen there was a kind of legal, moral, judicial chaos in the country. Anybody could come up to you, demand your business, throw you in jail if you were a competitor, take revenge against you, and they had the support of the police or law enforcement in return for bribes.”

Hear more about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at

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