Experts’ views of the Russians’ horrific war against Ukraine have changed over the weeks of battle–and the once-impossible scenario depicting the Ukrainians actually stopping the Russians has gained favor.
Now, with the Russians claiming they plan to push on to overtake Moldova, the threat of a widening war that the US has tried to avoid seems more likely. The urgency of a Ukrainian win has become even more evident.
But to hold on, the Ukrainians need far more support than they’re currently receiving.
In this video interview and the co-authored essay cited above, Laurence Tribe, a prominent legal scholar and Professor Emeritus at Harvard Law School, describes a way that President Biden can lawfully release for Ukrainian use frozen Russian government assets that the US holds–assets that may amount to $100 billion.
It is a far-reaching plan worth considering–promptly. Existing efforts are “neither bold enough nor swift enough” to provide what Ukraine needs, Tribe and co-author Jeremy Lewin write.
“Even if the Justice Department were able to sell every yacht and mansion it seizes over the coming months, earmarking the profits for military and humanitarian aid, the process would be too slow, and the proceeds too insignificant, to meet Ukraine’s growing and urgent needs: for tanks, antiaircraft missiles, food and medicine. And as the war enters its eighth week and its costs balloon, the American people may not be willing to foot the bill much longer.
“An obvious solution is staring us in the face: President Biden could liquidate the tens of billions of dollars the Russian central bank has parked in the United States as part of its foreign exchange reserves; by some estimates, those funds may total as much as $100 billion. These assets are already frozen at the Federal Reserve and other banks thanks to Treasury sanctions banning transactions with the Russian central bank.
“With new details of Russian atrocities making the prospect of lifting those sanctions increasingly untenable, those funds have, in effect, been seized indefinitely. Liquidating them now would not only be likely the fastest way to increase American aid to Ukraine without further burdening and fatiguing American taxpayers. It would also send a potent signal that the United States is committed to making even the world’s most powerful states pay for their war crimes.”
Tribe and Lewin stress that although this move may sound radical, it has been used before: government funds have been seized by President George Bush from Iraq; by Congress from Iran; by Trump from Venezuela. President Biden has actually begun the process of unfreezing former Afghan government central bank funds for humanitarian relief (instead of giving them to the Taliban).
Backing up their proposal, the authors cite a section of the 1977 International Emergency Economic Powers Act and a landmark 1981 Supreme Court case responding to the Iran hostage crisis that give the President such authority. Protections against the government taking private property do not apply because the funds belong to the Russian state, not individuals, they add.
“The Russian government would no doubt complain bitterly that liquidating its currency reserves was ‘thievery,’ just as it did with the existing sanctions. But Russia’s continued violation of the most basic principles of international law and human rights — and the Ukrainian people’s dire needs — must count for more than its self-serving rhetoric.”
“Mr. Putin’s Russia knows no rule of law — only brute force. He views our legal protections as ‘obsolete’ sources of weakness, part of his broader boast that free societies cannot stand up to him and other despots around the world. He’s wrong.
“As Harold Hongju Koh, a professor at Yale, has persuasively argued, our adherence to the rule of law, far from serving as a straitjacket, ‘frees us and empowers us to do things we could never do without law’s legitimacy.’ To meet Mr. Putin’s challenge, we needn’t sacrifice our historic principles or confirm his nihilistic vision of governance. By deploying the powers our legal system affords, we have the tools we need to help the courageous people of Ukraine survive and defeat him. It will be poetic justice under law for us to do so by turning his own treasure against him.”
I have great respect for Tribe and appreciate his frequent comments on Twitter. And like the authors, I’ve been worrying about how long American taxpayers will continue to support sending hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weaponry and supplies to Ukraine as the war drags on. The same is true about our European partners. While Finland is moving closer to NATO, the imminent French election will be dangerously close. Orban in Hungary is sidling up to Putin. Etc, etc.
In his “Today’s Edition” newsletter, Robert Hubbell, whom I also respect, urges anyone who agrees with the Tribe/Lewin piece to call our Senators and Representatives, as well as the comment lines for both the DOJ (1-202-353-1555) and the White House (1-202-456-1111), urging support for this proposal.
This “Russian cash for Ukraine” idea seems to me relatively clean, logical, dripping with karma, and legal—the latter based on the precedents cited. But the authors aren’t military experts—or world finance experts—or diplomats. All those perspectives might complicate the picture. Are there some ramifications that must be considered?
When Tribe was interviewed by Lawrence O’Donnell, he said he would urge President Biden to consider this suggestion. That phraseology gave me comfort, as I’m assuming a consideration of such a major step would include gaining input from the experts who might have concerns that Tribe and Lewin (and I) may not have considered.
It’s clear we must do everything we can–soon–to help the Ukrainians defeat the Russians, thereby ending this genocide and quashing Putin’s empire-amassing plans. Could that $100 billion enable the Ukrainians to save their country, which is a fight for democracy? If so, how can we not push for using these Russian resources?
What do you think? If you concur, would you be inclined to contact your elected officials and leave a supportive comment with the DOJ and the White House?