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Good Oligarch, Bad Oligarch

The West needs to develop a more nuanced approach to identifying which Russian oligarchs deserve heightened scrutiny and possibly punishment. If the West really wants to hurt Putin’s regime, giving oligarchs an incentive to take their money and leave is a lot more effective than punishing those Putin considers his enemies.

MOSCOW – With concern growing in the United States and Europe over Russia’s so-called oligarchs and the money they have stashed abroad, it is worth considering two fundamental questions. First, who qualifies as an oligarch? And, second, does every oligarch deserve to be regarded with suspicion?

Suspicion is certainly the order of the day in the US, where the authorities have announced massive sanctions against two Russian tycoons, Oleg Deripaska and Viktor Vekselberg, as part of an effort to punish the Kremlin for its alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Similarly, following the nerve-agent attack in England on former Russian double agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter, the United Kingdom has implemented new measures aimed at preventing money laundering, with capital inflows from Russia to come under the closest scrutiny.

The problem is that the criteria Western governments are using to identify Russians worthy of investigation and even punishment remain overly broad. The most common definition of an oligarch is a person whose wealth depends on political connections – particularly to Russian President Vladimir Putin. On its so-called Putin list – a sanctions watch list created last January – the US Treasury identified 96 “oligarchs” based on the mere fact that they are worth more than $1 billion.

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