A majority of Americans and a majority of Congress want to help Ukraine win the war against Russia, and to stop the spread of autocracy into Europe. A majority of people in the European Union and a majority of EU leaders want the same. But small minorities of lawmakers—some inspired by Russian President Vladimir Putin or his money, some bent on bargaining for other things—have managed to block or delay that aid.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the crunch has arrived. The far-right faction that now controls the Republican Party captured the House last year and has successfully blocked a new spending bill for many months.The prime minister of Hungary, himself a de facto autocrat, is also blocking an EU financial package for Ukraine. Eventually the European prime ministers and the Biden administration alike may well do deals and allocate the money. But in the meantime—and just in case they fail—there is something else that American and European governments can do.
At the very beginning of the conflict, the U.S., the EU, the United Kingdom, and other democratic governments jointly froze more than $300 billion in Russian sovereign assets, mostly in Europe. This is money that Russia cannot sell or borrow against. Nor can Russia make use of any of the interest this money earns. At the time, many believed that the decision to freeze these assets would shock the Russian government into pulling back. That did not happen. After nearly two years, the countries that hold these assets—all of them—should take the next step and transfer the money to Ukraine.
Laurence Tribe, the American constitutional scholar, has been promoting this idea for some time. In September, he and a team of lawyers published a 187-page report making the “legal, practical, and moral case” for transferring Russian assets to Ukraine. The moral argument is the easiest: Russia should pay for the damage it has done to Ukraine. The fundamental legal case, Tribe told me, rests on the many treaties that Russia broke by invading Ukraine, destroying whole cities, murdering civilians, deliberately damaging power grids and grain storage. By doing so, Russia lost any standing to complain about the violation of its sovereignty or property rights, since it denies those to Ukraine. [Continue reading…]