Sounds crazy, right? Until you consider that—unlike Senator Lindsey Graham’s proposed solution of assassination—a framework for the Biden administration to put a one billion dollar bounty on Putin’s head presently exists in the United States Code. Indeed, although it would require a day’s work on the part of the US Congress, there may be a less costly and far more efficient way for President Biden to help bring about an end to the war in Ukraine than by just sending billions of dollars’ worth of additional military equipment to support a fight that appears guaranteed to kill tens of thousands of more people on both sides—unless Putin is promptly brought to justice for the war crimes committed by his regime’s military and mercenaries. Moreover, it might be possible for the Biden administration and Congress to pursue this solution without spending a dime of American taxpayers’ money. Here’s a brief look at how. (To clarify up front: Designating Putin a Specially Designated Global Terrorist is not part of the proposed approach.)
When it was established in 1984, the United States Department of State’s Rewards for Justice (RFJ) program became the premier tool used to bring America’s financial might to bear in efforts to help bring to justice terrorists who either have or have planned to target Americans with attacks. RFJ touts among its ‘Success Stories’ paying a two million dollar reward for information that led to the arrest of 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef. When you read reports by terrorism experts like Peter Bergen about the FBI advertising multi-million dollar rewards for information that can be used to locate leadership figures in State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) like al-Qa’ida and affiliated groups, FBI is actually amplifying rewards advertised by RFJ (See the fine print about the reward offer in the posters advertising rewards for top al-Qa’ida figures at the Bureau’s website like this one). Indeed, when Toby Harnden similarly wrote in a piece published by The New York Times in 2021 that ‘Sirajuddin Haqqani, the [Taliban’s] acting minister of interior, has a $10 million F.B.I. bounty on his head’, technically, this too was erroneous (See the reward details furnished by FBI here).
An argument can be made—and has been by the author—that RFJ could do a better job of helping to bring to justice most-wanted senior al-Qa’ida figures like Saif al-Adl. Still, it showed its value with the operation that resulted in the death of ISIS’ original so-called ‘caliph’, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Certainly, it was a stroke of nincompoopery par excellence when failed Congressional candidate turned Trump administration-appointed Pentagon Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman remarked that the twenty-five million dollar reward for information that could help bring Baghdadi to justice was ‘going to go to the dog’ that was injured during this operation. Moments earlier, USCENTCOM Commander General Kenneth McKenzie, who clearly understood the seriousness of the matter, had dodged a question about a payout for the RFJ’s twenty-five million dollar reward, claiming, ‘I have no visibility on that’. Although RFJ did not promptly tout this matter among the ‘Success Stories’ on its website, counterterrorism professionals meanwhile understood that the prospects of a large financial reward being issued for information used to put Baghdadi out of business had almost certainly helped quicken the demise of this terrorist leadership figure who had Americans’ blood on his hands—even if a reward was never actually paid. (Based on the author’s first-hand experiences in dealing with RFJ, he contends that it would be unsurprising if a full reward was not paid in this case.)
In more recent years, RFJ has been more aggressively used as an ‘intelligence-driven law enforcement’ resource against a more diverse mix of actors than members and supporters of FTOs. The Biden administration has harnessed the legal framework that manifested in RFJ’s establishment to dangle large financial incentives for information that federal agencies like FBI can use to identify and locate hackers responsible for some of the costliest cybercrimes targeting Americans and critical infrastructure in the US, including elections (See below text found in the US Code). Indeed, on its website, RFJ now lists ‘Malicious Cyber Activity’—in addition to ‘Terrorism’ and ‘North Korea’—among the ‘three broad categories’ of threat sources that it is involved in helping the US Government counter.
RFJ’s growing involvement with the US Government’s responses to this wider array of threats than just international terrorism is not the fruits of creative interpretations of existing laws on the parts of the State Department’s attorneys. In US Code 22, Section 2708, one finds that RFJ’s official purpose has been updated since 1984. It now encompasses the following (both emphasis and underscored emphasis added): ‘to assist in the prevention of acts of international terrorism, international narcotics trafficking, serious violations of international humanitarian law, foreign election interference, transnational organized crime, and other related criminal acts’.
Certainly, it is encouraging to see Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, beating the drum on more creative and civilized ways to justify putting more pressure on Putin than posturing interest in seeing him assassinated—specifically, by nudging the Biden administration to insist that the State Department designate his regime as a state sponsor of terrorism in response to the ongoing terroristic acts perpetrated by the Russian military and Russian-backed mercenaries in Ukraine. Yet there is already a framework for treating Putin like others who have orchestrated international terrorism campaigns, and without resorting to measures that could prove too clever by half if challenged by a small cadre of seemingly Putin-friendly elements within the US Congress.
Given that President Biden has branded Putin a ‘war criminal’, RFJ could be used to provide a hefty reward for anyone in Russia—or who might be interested in traveling there—to hand Putin over to stand trial for committing ‘serious violations of international humanitarian law’. Indeed, although the US is not a party to the Rome Statute, it is important to consider that Biden has called for a ‘war-crimes trial’ to address the voluminous evidence that can be used to justify charges that Putin is responsible for war crimes perpetrated in Ukraine. Furthermore, as noted by Human Rights Watch in a brief explainer about the US relationship with the International Criminal Court (ICC), although the US has not officially acknowledged the ICC’s legitimacy by being a party to the Rome Statute, ‘In 2013, the US Congress expanded its existing war crimes rewards program to provide rewards to people providing information to facilitate the arrest of foreign individuals wanted by an international court or tribunal, including the ICC’. It also points to two prior cases (2012 and 2015) of the US playing a role in the transfer of two suspects to stand trial before the ICC.
Clearly, the Biden administration could point to those precedents to justify a plan to use RFJ to create incentives for Russian officials or oligarchs, perhaps even a group of both—maybe even some enterprising billionaire from a third country who can get close to Putin—to hand Putin over to await such a trial. The only catch in offering a one billion dollar reward for rendering him to another country, from which he could be transferred to the ICC, is twofold: Firstly, according to US Code 22, Section 2708 (e)(1), which addresses the maximum amount that a Secretary of State may authorize RFJ to reward, there is a cap of ‘up to twice the amount specified in this paragraph’, a reference to the previously stated amount of $25,000,000. Secondly, circumstances contemplated for a Secretary of State to offer up to a $50,000,000 reward entail efforts to obtain information ‘leading to the capture of a leader of a foreign terrorist organization’.
Of course, this is hardly an insurmountable barrier to the proposed measures presented herein. Given the current mood of the country, Congress could quickly amend this to address the previously uncontemplated situation at hand. Indeed, it will surely require a far greater reward to resolve this situation in the manner envisaged herein than seven-figure rewards that may have been offered to help bring to justice warlords who were accused of committing grievous human rights abuses in conflicts on the African continent. In the interim, President Biden could issue an executive order to expedite the advertisement of a potentially game-changing reward for Putin’s capture.
So, if Congress were to do that, how could the Biden administration use the RFJ to advertise a billion-dollar reward to anyone who is willing to hand Putin over to the ICC without spending a dime of American taxpayers’ money?
That is somewhat more complicated than space allows for the author to explain. Meanwhile, it is useful to consider recent commentary by legal studies scholar Jennifer Taub about using the one hundred billion dollars worth of Russian assets frozen by the US Government to equip the Ukrainian military and volunteers who are waging the fight against Putin’s forces in Ukraine. Clearly, there are well-reasoned theories about ways to utilize frozen Putin regime assets to counter Putin’s grand vision—in violation of international laws—to bring valuable, natural resource-rich territories that were once part of the Soviet Union under his control. And even if those proposed solutions are too abstract to easily pursue today, there seems to be a will in Congress to work on devising new laws President Biden can enact that would make those ideas viable tools in the fight to counter Putin’s criminal aims. Again, in the interim, Biden could issue an executive order to accommodate the conversion of Putin regime assets frozen in the US into tools used to counter the Russian dictator’s grand plans.
Certainly, it is important to acknowledge that cases where it can be reasonably assumed the RFJ helped bring to justice some of the world’s most-wanted criminals tend to yield limited impacts. Much as the author assessed would be the case in testimony before a Senate hearing that was chaired by Senator Graham in 2017, as well as in a piece published at Lawfare, Baghdadi’s death has had, at most, a negligible impact on ISIS’ resiliency. However, it is important to consider that it seems like a rather safe bet that Putin’s vision of obliterating Russia’s economy and standing in the world by miring Russia in a war that he cannot hope to win—without resorting to measures that will undoubtedly trigger responses which will yield more catastrophic impacts on Putin’s regime and Russia more broadly—is unlikely to prove a durable cause if Putin is stripped of power.
Already, CIA Director Bill Burns is psychologically conditioning Americans—and the world—to feel unsurprised by a more nightmarish scenario, in which Putin resorts to deploying nuclear weapons against Ukraine. Putin has since animated those very fears by posturing a threat to deploy nuclear weapons against nations that are backing Zelensky. The Biden administration can do more to resolve this situation, and it should not hesitate to more directly utilize either America’s financial might, or even the Putin regime’s assets that are frozen by the US Government, to try to bring about a less deadly conclusion to Putin’s terrorism campaign in Ukraine. One which, it seems CIA now assesses, may easily spiral into a much wider and more impactful war. Advertising a one-billion-dollar reward for anyone who is willing to help hold Putin accountable for the war crimes that are being committed in Ukraine could be the most efficient way to hasten an end to this fast-growing nightmare.