The U.S. needs to sanction Russian oligarchs, not the Russian people


In the 1990s, Oligarchs emerged as young entrepreneurs with formidable connections to Russia’s new government, led by President Boris Yeltsin. Their rapid financial growth allowed them to become mega-billionaires with considerable influence within the government.

“Now, I am almost 45 years old; today, my age stopped when the hearts of more than 100 children stopped beating. I see no sense in life if it cannot stop the deaths.”

These were President Zelensky’s exact words in his appeal to Congress on Wednesday, Mar 16. As he urged Congress to develop a more robust response in regards to the conflict in Ukraine, he also implored the U.S. to sanction (or freeze the assets of) the Russian oligarchs, elite businessmen who are Putin’s closest domestic allies. The U.S. needs to sanction the oligarchs’ assets, rather than Russia as a whole because it primarily harms innocent civilians, rather than Putin and his regime.

Make no mistake, the Russian economy has been hit hard by the economic sanctions the U.S. and other NATO members have imposed. However, instead of directly harming Putin, these sanctions are punishing ordinary Russians for a war they have no control over. 

Financial transactions have become difficult as Putin has banned the transfer of foreign currency abroad. Bank reserves have frozen and it has caused everyday civilians to race to withdraw their money before all of it is lost. Products are disappearing from the shelves, including food, medicine and other necessities. 

Because of past sanctions, Russia has ramped up their domestic production in the past few decades but is still mostly dependent on imports in the tech and medical industries. In addition to the loss of companies like Visa, Mastercard and a multitude of international airlines, major shipping corporations like MSC and Maersk have suspended container shipping into and out of Russia.

There is no doubt of the good intentions of the U.S., but sanctioning the entire country is ineffective and will only weaken the domestic opposition of Russians fighting Putin for their rights.

— Mishael Gill ’23

This economic turmoil in addition to Putin’s crackdown on free speech, free press and the right to protest has put citizens who oppose the war in a very difficult position. As financial restrictions have grown and more sanctions implemented, it has become more difficult for Russian citizens to express political freedoms and protest the war. Without economic healing (which will occur if these American sanctions are targeted away from civilians), funds for the opposition movement within Russia will deplete quickly. Inadvertently, these sanctions are just another tool helping Putin eliminate free speech and silence the Russian people.

According to Dmitri Trenin, a Moscow-based political scientist, Russia’s history means that mounting societal tensions and decreased morale can quickly erupt. It’s no question that the Russian people have suffered greatly throughout history under the leadership of unjust dictators, but this also means a higher vulnerability to chaotic revolt that could cause further harm to the civilian population.

This volatile political climate, in addition to the antagonization of Russians by the West, means that Russian civilians’ support for Putin may actually increase. If American foreign interventions continue to hurt Russian citizens, it’s possible that they would rather submit to a leader who at least pretends to care about them. There is no doubt of the good intentions of the U.S., but sanctioning the entire country is ineffective and will only weaken the domestic opposition of Russians fighting Putin for their rights.

An alternative solution would be to place economic sanctions on Russia’s richest oligarchs, who amassed great wealth during Russia’s post-Soviet Union economic incline. These men are some of the richest in the world, but this is precisely why economic sanctions would have a more dramatic impact. Sanctioning their assets could put great pressure on Russia’s leader to draw back his aggressive assault on Ukraine or potentially even stop the war. 

This will not be easy, as the Oligarchs’ assets are spread all over the world, but this is one of the world’s most direct and influential links to Putin and to stopping this war. Let’s not allow ordinary Russians to become yet another casualty in Putin’s war.