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Local Opinion: A plan to track Putin and his cronies

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

A month ago, the Biden administration did something unprecedented: It released highly secret intelligence to alert the world about what was going to happen in Ukraine. The effect of the masterfully executed operation was to unite NATO, push the Ukrainian armed forces toward emergency preparedness, and even wrong-foot Vladimir Putin by exposing a “false flag” operation central to his plan to accomplish a knockout blow in Ukraine.

Today, a vital option in trying to halt the complete destruction of Ukraine and the likely expansion of the war into neighboring NATO countries is again to release key U.S. intelligence. This time, however, it can be cross-fertilized with open-source information available of the Internet to pin down certain features of Putin’s whereabouts and movements — a composite of data that can provide Putin with a ticket to oblivion. But how and why?

Everyone knows, of course, that Putin’s American-held billions are stashed in a labyrinth of proxy accounts, trusts and partnerships. The dictator’s so-called “wallets” — or oligarchs — hide the stolen wealth on his behalf.

Tracking Vlad first requires empowering the Justice Department’s recently formed Task Force “KleptoCapture” with the breakthrough bipartisan legislation now moving through the House of Representatives. Amending U.S. bank secrecy law, the “Enablers Act” would impose stringent new reporting requirements by U.S. middlemen — accountants, lawyers, investment advisors, bankers and even art dealers — who service Russian clients. It also would incentivize facilitators of dirty Russian money to act as the modern-day equivalent of bounty hunters. Provided they were to expose suspected money-laundering, they would earn a percentage of the confiscated proceeds.

In the view of Bill Browder — once the largest foreign investor in Russia and now Putin’s most fervid opponent — the sanctions list must be greatly expanded in order to expose and confiscate the foreign bank accounts and illicit property of all of Putin’s corrupt generals, political allies, and intelligence chieftains. Browder’s point is that pressure on the maximum number of players in Putin’s mafia state enhances the prospect of regime change from within the Kremlin.

Tracking down Putin also requires exposing the Republican Party as both corrupted and allegiant to the Kremlin’s cat’s-paw, Donald J. Trump. The Justice Department should file a superseding indictment to add Putin to the list of 12 GRU (Russian military intelligence) agents already formally accused for their criminal role in electing Trump president. Oleg Smolenkov, the CIA mole in the Kremlin who fingered the Russian president in the first place, is now in witness-protected hiding here in the U.S. His testimony is clearly sufficient to convict Putin in absentia and have a warrant issued for his arrest thereafter.

Another Republican fellow-traveler who needs to be exposed is “Moscow Mitch” McConnell. In January 2019, then-Majority Leader McConnell got the Treasury Department to remove two companies owned by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska from the sanctions list. The purpose was to facilitate a $200 million investment by Deripaska to build an aluminum mill in McConnells’s home state of Kentucky. Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, now the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has called for this “deeply concerning scheme” to be investigated. Without such investigations, Russian intelligence agencies will continue to subvert American democracy in future elections.

Finally, we should face the unhappy fact that cratering the Russian economy — or even cutting off Russia’s oil and gas exports — won’t necessarily stop Putin. The likelihood of an internal putsch can be enhanced, however, by what intelligence officials call “mosaic tactics” — linking tidbits of open-source information such as granular location-tracking, Alexa voice data, facial recognition and other networked data — with high-value intelligence culled from covert assets in the Kremlin.

Jack Sweeney, a 19 year-old student who previously tracked Elon Musk’s private jet, is now posting the movements of the planes of Putin and three Russian oligarchs. Dozens of websites such as Anonymous (“hacktivist collective,” as it calls itself, which is divulging hundreds of top-secret Kremlin emails in real-time) or Bellingcat, a Dutch website that first revealed the killing of Russian Major General Vitaly Gerasimov (tracked down via intercepted Russian army cell calls).

The key now is for American intelligence agencies to cross-fertilize that kind of open-source information with top-secret data in order to geo-locate Putin’s whereabouts and movements 24/7 in real-time.

It would allow Russian generals, intelligence operatives, internal security chieftains and the Russian people (all of whom are systematically excluded from knowing Putin’s daily movements) to identify where he’s hiding out. (Fully 75% of the Russian population use secure Virtual Private Networks to shield themselves from Putin’s police.) The webpage, of course, would have to be curated and protected by Western cyber-experts in order to block the Kremlin from destroying it.

Russians and Ukrainians, who share culture, language, religion and bloodlines, also have a common history of overthrowing tyrants. Tracking down Putin both in Washington and Moscow would enable them to do so again. If not, we may be heading into World War III.

Richard D. Mahoney is a former Arizona secretary of state. He is a professor of political science in the School of Public and International Studies at North Carolina State University.

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