The conflict in Ukraine has inflicted immeasurable damage, decimating hospitals and schools, killing thousands of people, and forcing millions to flee the country.
In Russia, government-sponsored propaganda and reticence by both State and local authorities to publish data on losses have so far obscured the true Russian death toll. However, the war’s humanitarian cost within Russia is already emerging.
Rule of law has been in crisis in Russia for decades, but the introduction of two laws recently fast-tracked through the Duma – one criminalising participation in anti-war protests and another banning reporting or disseminating information on the conflict – have accelerated the most draconian crackdown on civil liberties witnessed in the country for more than 30 years.
Widespread condemnation of Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine was quickly followed by unprecedented economic sanctions.
As foreign investors and businesses rushed to sell off assets, close offices and cut ties with clients in Russia, an uneasy realisation dawned. Something known in the anti-corruption community for decades: the wealth and business interests of hundreds of oligarchs closely aligned to the Putin regime is fully embedded in the world’s financial centres.
Wealthy Russians have, over the past 20 years or more, listed their companies on stock exchanges, bought lavish properties, invested in trophy-winning football clubs and so on.
It wasn’t a secret. Oligarchs had been laundering their illicit wealth in plain sight. Worse still, governments time and again had stood idly by and let it happen. ‘Sanction the oligarchs!’ was the rallying cry of Bill Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management and vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, for more than a decade.
The Ukraine crisis has attracted a sharp focus on the extent to which ‘dirty’ Russian money pervades the world’s financial centres. Now, after many years of delaying, countries are rushing to boost transparency mechanisms that will help crack down on this illicit wealth.
The UK rapidly re-introduced its shelved Economic Crime Bill in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The legislation, which received royal assent on 14 March, will establish a new register listing the ultimate owners of property or land in the UK that have been purchased by overseas entities.
Given how much UK property is linked to Russian corruption – Transparency International estimates around £1.5bn has been spent in the UK by Russians with alleged connections to the Kremlin since 2016 – the register has been welcomed as a step-change in the UK’s approach to tackling illicit financial flows (IFFs) from Russia and elsewhere.
It was a moment few will forget. After weeks of escalating tensions, Russian forces finally crossed Ukraine’s borders in the early hours of 24 February.
Days earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he was recognising the rebel-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states. Until then, a full-scale invasion had seemed inconceivable. Suddenly, Europe was faced with its largest conflict since the Second World War.
Russia’s incursion and subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014 was still fresh in everyone’s minds. The threat of further Russian aggression had been building for months as hundreds of thousands of troops lined Ukraine’s borders.
The Ukraine conflict has already caused over 1,000 civilian casualties and the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, prompting calls for those responsible to be held to account in international courts.
On 28 February, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan QC, announced he was opening an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine ‘as rapidly as possible’ after 39 countries referred the situation to the ICC, the largest referral in the Court’s history.
Ukraine has not ratified the Rome Statute and cannot refer situations to the ICC, but the country has twice accepted the Court’s jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed on its territory since November 2013.
Ukraine has also called on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to stop Russia committing crimes against humanity and war crimes. After Russia boycotted the hearing in The Hague on 7 March, the ICJ said it would follow a fast-track procedure to expedite its ruling.
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