Crowdsourcing the Fight Against Putin's Oligarchs | Opinion

To ratchet up the pressure on Vladimir Putin, President Joe Biden intends to target Russian oligarchs by "joining with European allies to find and seize their yachts, their luxury apartments, their private jets." There are two impediments to this strategy, however. First, the splashy expatriates it targets are no longer in Putin's inner circle, and lack influence. Second, NATO's 30 member nations are incapable of agreeing to impose long-overdue restrictions on a broad set of kleptocrats, let alone their wives and children. Too many are too entrenched in too many Western nations. Of the thousands that make up Putin's mafia network, just a handful of oligarchs will draw the full force of NATO sanctions.

But a new method of irregular warfare is emerging with the potential to cleave the regime: crowdsourcing. Individuals are banding together on the internet like army ants to contribute tools and information toward a common goal. We first saw battlefield crowdsourcing during the botched U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Groups of veterans spontaneously leapt in to guide Afghans to the airport via social media, providing link-up with U.S. troops guarding the walls. Generals on the scene tacitly endorsed this bottom-up initiative.

In the case of Ukraine, crowdsourced support is just as decentralized and hyper-responsive. Private satellite companies are publishing real-time images of Russian troop movements. Cybersecurity experts are outing suspicious Russian IP addresses and domains. Elon Musk, communicating directly with Ukrainian officials via Twitter, has offered continuous, space-based internet service. An American college student is tracking oligarchs' private jets.

Allied entrepreneurs have had as much influence as allied generals.

What is the next step? A crowdsourced "Wall of Shame" publicizing the names, pictures, locations and lifestyles of Putin's extended network, maintained on the internet. Governments will not agree to ban visas for more than a few of Putin's extended mafia. In its place, a crowdsourced wall can publicly aggregate existing efforts to track their travel and spending, while encouraging widespread international participation with the addition of burgeoning technologies like facial recognition.

Pro-Ukraine protest Washington DC
A demonstrator holds a United Against Putin sign outside the White House in Washington, DC, on March 6, 2022, during a rally in support of Ukraine. Stefani Reynolds / AFP/Getty Images

Facial recognition is improving so rapidly that no one can hide in public view. Software can instantly sift through millions of images sourced by ubiquitous security cameras, social media posts and alert individuals in hotel lobbies and restaurants. Imagine targeting a few thousand key people without crippling everyday Russians who are part of a tyrannical regime.

Who should engineer this massive project? Ukraine—a favorite offshore manufacturing hub of Silicon Valley—is known for its developer talent. Ukraine's minister for digital transformation, Mykhaylo Fedorov, recently announced the formation of a digital army, publishing an open target list and operational instructions. With specifications provided by Ukraine, allied software engineers could assist this talent army and construct the Wall of Shame under the broad #StandWithUkraine umbrella.

Crowdsourcing Putin's crony clique on a Wall of Shame would pose a challenge to NATO nations: how serious are they about breaking Putin's hold? The CIA and European intelligence agencies could anonymously contribute names, photos and financial details. To do so would not expose sources and methods. After all, the Biden administration provided the press with details of Putin's plans to great effect.

A government's role in an effective crowdsourced information operation may be hands off, but the publicity helps. In 2000, international governments endorsed Most Wanted posters featuring Balkan war criminals. Milosevic, Mladic et al. became infamous. Today's Russian exploiters will achieve overdue notoriety.

Experts like the Navalny Group can act as vetting agents, similar to Wikipedia's administrators. But make no mistake; Putin's network of "walking wallets" can absolutely be tracked, from border crossings to shopping at Harrods to vacationing in Turkey to studying at Harvard. The institutions they frequent—the hotel, bank, university, department store—will have to choose between public censure and stolen money.

A photograph database has additional potential on the battlefield. Responding this week to a Russian mortar attack that killed Ukrainian civilians, President Volodymyr Zelensky said, "We will punish everyone who committed atrocities in this war. There will be no quiet place on Earth for you." Such incidents will spike as urban combat intensifies in very close quarters, with civilian refugees intermixed with attacking Russian soldiers. Russian officers and Ukrainian separatists and collaborators will inevitably be photographed. If the pictures are submitted to a database, perpetrators can be identified to be held accountable for their conduct after the war. Even aging cannot outrun the technology. To help loosen Putin's hold on Russia, combining crowdsourced photographs with facial recognition is a modern tactic too powerful to be ignored.

Owen West, a former Marine and advisor to Clearview AI, served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.