Storming a sanctioned Russian oligarch’s $100 million mega-yacht and seizing the vessel on behalf of the U.S. government might sound like a job for professionals.
Or maybe not. One GOP congressman has a plan to get regular Americans in on the action.
Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas introduced a bill this week that would theoretically enlist American civilians in the global hunt for Russian assets. The U.S., UK, and European Union have all ratcheted up sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ultra-wealthy inner circle in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. President Joe Biden vowed to track down Russian oligarchs’ “ill-begotten gains.”
Gooden said his plan would allow Americans to seize all manner of physical assets owned by sanctioned oligarchs, from outrageously expensive mega-yachts equipped with pools and elevators, to Bugattis cruising down American or European highways.
“It pertains to any property outside Russia owned by Russian oligarchs on the Treasury’s list of sanctioned individuals,” Gooden told VICE News by email. “Any physical property in the United States, Europe, international waters, or other territory is fair game.”
Gooden’s pitch is to bring back an antiquated legal concept known as the “Letter of Marque,” which once allowed civilian sailing vessels to seize enemy ships during conflicts. Letters of Marque were issued by the U.S. during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. They are written into the Constitution, which means they’re still technically on the books.
In the old days, this practice was known as “privateering”—although its critics, and presumably its victims, were more inclined to see the endeavor as state-sanctioned piracy. Privateering was officially banned by many European countries in 1856. But like with many international treaties, the U.S. never signed on.
Gooden said he thinks Letters of Marque would do less to inflame U.S.-Russian relations than using, say, the U.S. Marines to requisition sanctioned mega-yachts.
“Sending in U.S. military assets to seize these vessels obviously sends an escalatory message,” he said. “My primary goal is to hold Russia accountable while minimizing the risk of escalating this conflict. This requires creativity and exploring options available to us that may not be conventional.”
Gooden said he doesn’t think assets inside Russia should be part of the plan. That would presumably forestall a scenario in which bands of Americans attempt to march into Russia and carry off whatever valuables they find in Rublyovka, Moscow’s millionaires’ district.
“I want to make it clear this would not include property inside Russia,” Gooden said.
Gooden said his bill wouldn’t apply to cyberspace either, so the plan does not, at the moment, foresee unleashing an army of private hackers to drain oligarchs’ digital wallets. But, Gooden said, the U.S. should think about putting crypto on the table.
“As modern conflicts evolve, using letters of marque in cyberspace is something the United States should explore,” he said.
But don’t start polishing your grappling hook just yet. Gooden’s plan is deeply unlikely to win approval from Congress, let alone the Biden administration. Even Gooden admits there are important details to be worked out.
For example: If you somehow gain control of an oligarch’s yacht, do you get to keep it?
No, according to Gooden. In the old days, assets seized by individuals would be turned over to U.S. authorities, although whoever brought it in would get some kind of prize, Gooden said.
Similarly, you might get to claim a bounty, or chunk of the proceeds, if the asset is later auctioned off after being turned over to the U.S. government. Details like that are still up in the air.