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Last week, the European Union's sanctions regime against Russia -- and, to a lesser extent, its more minor measures targeting Belarus -- cleared one of the greatest hurdles: the question of their own legality.

Since the full scale-invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the bloc has imposed asset freezes and visa bans on 1,800 individuals and entities for what the EU calls "actions undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine."

The Belarus sanctions, which are a response to several incidents in recent years, cover nearly 300 people and companies linked to Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime, which has supported the Russian attack on Ukraine, and continues to crack down on Belarusian opposition and civil society since a flawed presidential election in 2020.

The inclusion of most of those blacklisted people is seemingly defensible -- EU diplomats have told me that it is relatively straightforward to present a good legal case for them. These include politicians and officials who have taken decisions that support the war on Ukraine or the crackdown against the opposition, military leaders who have committed alleged atrocities such as the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, and judges and prosecutors who have rubber-stamped the oppression of individuals.

However, EU diplomats know that the public officials targeted in Russia and Belarus, apart from "big fish" such as Presidents Vladimir Putin and Lukashenka and their closest entourages, are unlikely to travel to the EU or maintain considerable bank assets inside the bloc. It is, in other words, symbolic without much real political impact.

Deep Background: What matters more, however, are sanctions against businessmen, oligarchs, and their family members who are believed to be close to the Russian and Belarusian regimes. And it apparently matters to them, too -- as European lawyers have challenged their inclusion on the blacklists in the EU's own court, the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Many of those individuals were slapped with sanctions in the spring of 2022 and have since had hearings before the Luxembourg-based ECJ. This fall, a number of verdicts will be issued.

This is a real challenge for the Brussels machinery, notably its legal services. Not only is the EU up against well-paid private-sector lawyers with rich clients, it must also present enough evidence linking these people to the regimes in question and, crucially, demonstrate that their support has contributed to the war in Ukraine or the crackdown in Belarus.

Essentially, the credibility and effectiveness of the EU's entire sanctions regime are on the line. Few EU officials want to repeat the embarrassment of the bloc's sanctions against former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his inner circle, which have been eroded every year since 2014 by successful challenges before the ECJ. Judging by the slew of verdicts delivered by the ECJ on September 7, the EU is hoping they are on firmer legal ground.

Drilling Down:

  • The biggest decision against Belarus concerned sanctions against steel magnate Dmitry Pumpyansky and his spouse, Galina Pumpyanskaya. The bloc targeted Pumpyansky for his role as chairman of PJSC Pipe Metallurgic Company and as president of the Sinara Group -- roles in which he had contributed with crucial supplies to state-owned enterprises, including Russian Railways and energy giants Gazprom and Rosneft.
  • When sanctioning Pumpyansky, the bloc pointed out that he had attended Putin's meeting with 36 businesspeople shortly after the February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine began "to discuss the impact of the course of action in the wake of Western sanctions," adding that "the fact that he was invited to attend this meeting shows that he is a member of the closest circle of Vladimir Putin."
  • Pumpyanskaya was sanctioned by virtue of being the chairwoman of the board of trustees at Sinara, a foundation involved in the charitable activities of large companies including PJSC Pipe Metallurgical Company. EU lawyers also reasoned that her marriage to Pumpyansky made her "a natural person associated with a leading businessperson involved in economic sectors providing a substantial source of revenue to the government of the Russian Federation."
  • In its verdict, the ECJ upheld the EU sanctions against the pair and noted that "although Mr. Pumpyansky has not played a direct role in [the] military offensive in Ukraine, he is involved in economic sectors which constitute a substantial source of revenue for the government of the Russian Federation." The evidence the EU gave linking him to the Russian oil and gas industry was also described by the court as "well-founded."
  • Pumpyanskaya's appeal was also dismissed due to her clear family and business ties to Pumpyansky. Being a family member of a sanctioned oligarch is not enough to be targeted per se, but a case can be built on evidence that a sanctioned person has potentially spread wealth to circumvent sanctions.
  • In a similar fashion, and on the same day, the court also dismissed the appeals of another Russian oligarch, Gennady Timchenko, and his wife, Yelena Timchenko. The former executive director of Russian tech giant Yandex, Tigran Khudaverdyan, also lost his appeal against the EU's assertion that the company is a "key element in hiding information" about the war in Ukraine from Russians.
  • With respect to the Belarus sanctions, Mikhail Gutseriev, a Russian national with considerable energy and potash businesses in Belarus, also failed in his attempt to get delisted. The court didn't contest the EU assertion that he is a longtime Lukashenka acquaintance "and thanks to this association has accumulated significant wealth and influence among the political elite in Belarus."
  • All of these decisions appear to uphold two major pillars of the EU sanctions policy: You don't have to be directly involved in the political decision-making process regarding the attack on Ukraine to be sanctioned, and family members of tycoons and oligarchs can very much be targeted.
  • This doesn't mean that any and all attempts to get delisted are destined to fail. Two more rulings are expected this week, and many more will be issued this fall. A number of oligarchs are likely willing and able to have another go at trying to pick apart the EU's legal reasoning.
  • Brussels didn't have it all its own way last week. Aleksandr Shulgin, a former CEO of e-commerce company Ozon, won his appeal when the court concluded there was insufficient evidence that his actions at Ozon undermined Kyiv. As reported in an earlier briefing, EU ambassadors had already decided in July to lift sanctions against Shulgin, Farkhad Akhmedov, and Grigory Berezkin later in September after EU lawyers indicated the bloc was likely to lose those cases on appeal.


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