Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is underway. The Kremlin is justifying the attack’s based on half-baked legal rationales, claiming that Ukraine’s independence is illegitimate and that Russian forces are protecting supposedly oppressed Russian-speaking minorities.
The response from the international community has been deafening. Russian banks have been banned from international banking systems. Russian airplanes may no longer fly over much of Western airspace. Europe is banning Russian propaganda networks from broadcasting on its airwaves. But one area is largely ignored in this giant response: international legal cooperation. Using cross-border agencies like Interpol, Moscow has long pursued dissidents and opponents abroad. It is time for Russia’s participation in these networks to end.
The Kremlin has turned legal illusions into a potent weapon in its war on the West. For decades, the United States and its allies have tolerated and worked with Russian legal and financial institutions on the false premise that these organizations are operating in good faith.
Russia has instead used this cooperation to its advantage, waging “lawfare” through ostensibly legitimate claims. This superficial legitimacy allows Russia to co-opt legitimate Western institutions in accomplishing its illegitimate ends. Legal claims not only allow the Kremlin to justify bogus wars on the battlefield. They also help Russia crush dissent in Western courtrooms.
For example, Moscow weaponizes international law enforcement in an insidious manner: the Kremlin is the top abuser of Interpol’s Red Notice system. The Red Notice network serves as a bulletin board of international requests, asking other countries to detain and extradite the target. The entire system depends on the good faith of the notice issuer. But Interpol’s inadequate vetting process for Red Notices allows bad faith claims to fester on the network.
Unfortunately, this systematic oversight makes Russia’s abuse of the system appear legitimate on its face. Instead of using Interpol to hunt down dangerous criminals fleeing across borders, Russia uses Interpol to pursue dissidents. Though it accounts for a miniscule percentage of the world’s population, Russia accounts for nearly half of all Red Notices.
This can have dire consequences for Putin’s critics.
Russia employs these Red Notices against both Russian citizens and Westerners. Putin critic Bill Browder was the subject of this tactic, after he and his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky uncovered corruption in the Russian government. In 2018, Spanish police detained Browder in response to a Russian Red Notice, only releasing him after he raised alarms over the arrest.
In another instance, Russia issued a Red Notice for Yevgeny Khasoyev, a human rights activist. Polish police acted on the Red Notice and arrested Khasoyev, preparing him for potential extradition. While Browder and Khasoyev were ultimately released, Moscow’s abuse of the Red Notice system can lead to unaware law enforcement agencies inadvertently doing the Kremlin’s repressive work.
The United States is no exception. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its immigration enforcement arms have fallen for these Russian tactics. As scholars at the Heritage Foundation and elsewhere have pointed out, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) essentially treats Interpol Red Notices as evidence of criminality and grounds for deportation. ICE even launched a special program to hunt down Red Notice targets in 2015. This practice effectively makes ICE a snatch-and-grab arm of Putin’s regime. For instance, ICE has detained pro-democracy activists and anti-corruption crusaders at Russia’s behest.
For some, these Red Notices can be no more than a distant threat. But for those caught in opaque deportation proceedings, they can carry the peril of a death sentence back in Russia.
Sometimes, the Kremlin does not even need to issue an actual Red Notice to further its objectives. Instead, Russian agencies develop fake stories about Red Notices being issued for opponents and use these stories to embarrass them politically. The Kremlin recently used this tactic against Moldovan politicians opposing Russia’s influence.
Beyond criminal claims, Moscow also weaponizes civil judicial proceedings, particularly defamation lawsuits. Kremlin lackeys file lawsuits against journalists and other critics, hoping to silence dissent. In the United Kingdom, where defamation laws have a low standard of proof, journalists and publishers make juicy targets for Russian oligarchs.
For example, billionaire Roman Abramovich sued journalist Catherine Belton for connecting his activities to the Kremlin in her book “Putin’s People.” A U.K. judge delivered legal victories for Abramovich in the case. Belton’s publisher eventually settled with Abramovich, agreeing to edit contested passages. Abramovich is currently facing the threat of sanctions over his connections to Moscow and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russian operatives also targeted Bill Browder with a defamation suit. Rinat Akhmetshin, whom media reports have identified as former Russian intelligence, sued Browder in the United States for sharing those reports on Twitter (Akhmetshin was one of the attendees at the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting). Litigation over the matter has lasted years.
Whether Putin critics are found liable, the cost of litigation can suffocate the financial well-being of a lawsuit target. Other would-be documenters of Kremlin wrongdoing certainly see the personal cost of taking on Putin and his minions, and they might think twice before exposing corruption. Damages from the defamation suit are merely a secondary objective. The primary objective — a chilling effect on criticism of Putin or his government — is the Kremlin’s true motivation.
There are other, less visible ways that Russian repression infiltrates Western legal systems. Using financial networks and bankruptcy proceedings, the Kremlin exports repression. The United States and its allies will need to cut off Russian access to these institutions as well.
Beyond these civil and financial claims, the first step should be suspending Russia’s participation in Interpol. The United Kingdom already called for Moscow’s suspension less than a week after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The United States should follow London’s lead and push Interpol to exclude Russia from participation. At the very least, the West should ignore all bogus Red Notice requests that originate in the Kremlin. After denying Moscow access to criminal enforcement networks, the United States and its allies can move onto blocking its infiltration through less visible means.
About the author: John Cicchitti is a program manager at the Lexington Institute and a student at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.
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