The Russian oligarchs’ lawyers ensure right-of-representation, which is a sacred value in the EU judicial system. However, a tsunami of lawsuits in the European Court of Justice is dampening further EU action against Russian warfare in Ukraine.
Given the strong sentiment in European society against Russia’s war and inexplicable aggression against Ukrainians, lawyers of sanctioned oligarchs are putting their reputations at high risk.
Lawyers who represent banned Russian oligarchs in Europe
EUobserver conducted a thorough investigation to highlight EU lawyers who have taken on high-stakes Russian lawsuits. It shows who represents banned Russian oligarchs in a risky environment.
To thwart Putin’s campaign against Ukraine, the EU has blacklisted over 1,500 Russian citizens. They have secured billions of dollars in private Russian assets, including Italian houses, luxury ships docked in German ports, and Abramovich’s castle on the French Riviera.
Thierry Bontinck is the Russian oligarchs’ go-to man for combating EU sanctions. Daldewolf, his Brussels-based enterprise, is well-known in Belgium.
Bontinck is currently representing Russians in 15 lawsuits before the European Court of Justice, the most of any individual EU lawyer. His clients include Roman Abramovich, the former owner of Chelsea Football Club, entrepreneur Oleg Deripaska, and Gennady Timchenko, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the last 15 years, he has worked on over 50 EU sanctions cases; he told EUobserver.
However, more than 40 Russians, who can afford to pay high legal bills and a few Russian businesses, are fighting to reclaim their EU assets and travel benefits.
They’ve enlisted the help of 30 European law firms, with Daldewolf at the top of the list.
According to the ECJ data, the vast bulk of Russia’s litigators are headquartered in Brussels, Paris, and Luxembourg. There are a few in London, Milan, and Vienna. The remainder are located in Geneva, Nicosia, and Prague.
With 38 ECJ cases, Daldewolf and other Belgian enterprises Acquis EU Law & Policy, JP Hordies Avocats, Grayston, Moretto, Seeds, and Strelia lead the field.
Astey, Acte V, Bonifassi, Bureau Brandeis, Carlara, Far-Avocats, Kiejman-Marembert, Lectio, Muellerdaniel, Piwnica, WD Associates, and WJ Avocats are among the French firms participating in 25.
Lansky, Ganzger + Partner ensure nine cases, and it is second to Daldewolf.
Campo, an Italian business, gained six cases.
Four are held by the British firm Blackstone Chambers, the British-Chinese firm Dentons, and the Swiss firm BM Avocats.
Dentons, the world’s sixth-largest law firm, is the lone behemoth engaged. It represents Russian fertiliser billionaire Andrey Melnichenko at the European Court of Justice, who wants his boat, Sailing Yacht A, returned.
Lansky, Ganzger + Partner has an experienced “Senior Expert Counsel” team. It now represents Melnichenko, Russian steel billionaire Dmitry Pumpyansky, his wife Galina, and coal magnate Vladimir Rashevsky.
Belgian lawyer Alain De Jonge earned a reputation for himself by defending Princess Delphine of Belgium, a royal love-child, in her bid to inherit the throne in 2020. De Jonge and his law firm Seeds currently represent Russian cigarette baron Igor Kesaev, who claims in the European Court of Justice that he was blacklisted due to “discrimination” simply because he was “rich” and “Russian.”
William Julié, a French barrister, is a legal expert who has been on TV and at conferences in the EU and the United States. Julié is currently representing Farkhad Akhmedov, a Russian oil mogul described by EU sanctions as “close to the Kremlin” and providing “significant” income to it.
Since some Russians use multiple law firms for the same lawsuit or are fighting various lawsuits, the number of Russian cases, clients, and EU lawyers is not exhaustive and needs to be checked and updated.
EU Council has been fighting sanctions challenges
For decades, the EU Council, which represents member states, has been fighting sanctions challenges. Before the Russia-Ukraine all-out war, these were arriving at a rate of a dozen or more per year.
However, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the flood of over 75 new Russia-related litigation in the last 18 months has been “unprecedented,” according to lawyers.
Hazardous case of Prigozhin’s mother
In March, judges overturned EU sanctions against Violetta Prighozina, the mother of notorious Russian Wagner mercenary lord Yevgeny Prigozhin, in the first of a series of rulings. Violetta Prighozina is likely to face an appeal from the EU Council.
However, considering that Wagner’s owner’s mother was designated for the same reasons as numerous other Russian VIPs, EU diplomats are concerned that Prighozina’s victory may become a very negative precedent. And this has the potential to thwart future actions by the EU against Russia’s war operations.
One of them might be a well-known wealthy Russian businessman and steel baron Vladimir Lisin. According to diplomatic sources, Poland and Ukraine have been lobbying the EU to blacklist Vladimir Lisin in the upcoming 11th round of Russia sanctions. Ukraine claims it sent confidential evidence to the EU that Lisin is supporting Putin’s military-industrial complex.
Lawyers put their reputation at risk defending toxic Russians
Because ECJ litigators must be enrolled at the bar of an EU or European Economic Area (EU27+ Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway) country, the Russians are utilising European law firms. Because many British barristers hung up their ECJ wigs following Brexit, Russian business resides in Brussels and Paris.
However, sanctioned Russian billionaires are also turning to boutique EU firms because several major Western law firms consider Russia toxic in terms of reputation.
Financial gains can be substantial for those willing to face the reputational risk. A full-fledged ECJ sanctions case, including appeals, can take 18 to 24 months to complete and result in hundreds of billable hours for a team of partners and associate attorneys. On the upper end of industry projections, the 76 Russia sanctions cases would be worth tens of millions of euros combined.
Russia’s sanctions lawsuits give sanctioned oligarchy not only a small hope to win the case but also an immediate win of time. The lawsuit assists the sanctioned clients in legitimately transferring funds through EU banks to fulfil ongoing contracts or making payments for maintenance on confiscated yachts and villas.
As lawsuits go, Russia continues killing people in Ukraine
There is a terrible moral side to this story. The lawyers legitimately make good money, and the lawsuits give a hand to Russians under sanctions, but this process blocks the EU efforts against Russia’s war in Ukraine, while the Kremlin troops continue killing Ukrainians in the captured Ukrainian territories and in peaceful Ukrainian cities far behind the front lines.
But according to the law, and the EU sanctions, blacklisted Russians, like everyone else, must have access to legal representation in Europe to “exercise the right of defence in judicial proceedings.”
Read full investigation on EUobserver.