POLITICO obtained access to five of the so-called “working papers” used by the European Council to justify sanctioning Russian business leaders, officials and their family members.
The packets — labeled as “LIMITE,” an internal EU classification that indicates they are not to be shared with the public — run to dozens of pages. They consist of a description of the legal basis for the sanctions, a summary of the justification and a short biography of the individual, followed by the evidence supporting the accusation.
One evidence packet relies on 10 open-source links with varying degrees of reliability. Another on nine. Another on four. They include articles from publications like the Financial Times and Reuters but also rely heavily on machine-translated articles from Russian or Ukrainian sources of varying credibility. One packet, for example, cites an article published by a lifestyle magazine affiliated with the Russian government, which has been accused of propaganda and that publishes more cooking recipes than serious journalism. Another cites a thinly sourced website dedicated to the dubious affairs of rich Russians.
As background material, the packets cite one-page profiles from Forbes magazine or Wikipedia articles about the proposed target for sanctions. Inclusion on the so-called U.S. oligarch list, which names some 100 people the country’s Treasury Department views as “oligarchs,” is cited as evidence of wrongdoing, even if not everybody on the list has been sanctioned.
Together, the packets reveal how the EU bases many of its sanctions decisions — cutting off assets and banning travel into the bloc — on shaky evidence, leaving the bloc vulnerable to court challenges.
Few in the West would dispute that many of the nearly 1,600 people the EU has sanctioned over the Russian invasion are being appropriately treated. But it’s equally clear, say lawyers for sanctioned individuals as well as independent experts, that the bar for evidence is shockingly low — especially given the severity of the consequences.
“This is a civil death in the sense that when they are sanctioned, they are almost completely cut off from economic life,” said Viktor Winkler, a German lawyer who specializes in sanctions but has no Russian clients.“ We created this sanctions instrument, which is a very, very, very sharp sword. And the way that [the EU] is using this sword is no longer acceptable.”
The EU has imposed sanctions for decades, but while the quality of the evidence packet has significantly improved since the early days, it underwent a noticeable dip as the EU rushed to sanction hundreds of people, said Michael O’Kane, a London-based attorney from the law firm Peters & Peters who has represented sanctioned individuals. EU is more likely to include evidence from social media or blog posts, or information provided by opposition figures, O’Kane said. “If you’re going to depart from established, respected journalistic outlets, then enhanced due diligence needs to be done on the sources of the information you’re seeking to rely upon,” he added.
In March, a group of lawyers, many of whom represent Russian oligarchs, published an open letter complaining about the information used by the EU. “Many individuals have been listed only on the basis of publicly available sources, gathered from a simple Google search, including from questionable online-tabloid articles or anonymous blogs,” they wrote. “Because of this flawed preparatory work, many sanction designations include within their listing grounds gross misrepresentations, false factual statements and inconsistencies.”
Countries like Estonia, Lithuania and Poland are resistant toward delisting people in order to keep pressure on Russia, according to an official briefed on confidential discussions.
Asked whether a Wikipedia article was appropriate evidence for applying sanctions, the same EU diplomat said it could be problematic. “There is no common definition of if it could be acceptable or not,” the diplomat said. “But this would also have to be a very good Wikipedia article.”
In arguments before the General Court, the European Council’s lawyer Bart Driessen frequently points out that it is not his institution, but rather the EEAS, that is responsible for gathering the evidence.
While defending a challenge by a Russian businessman, Driessen found himself having to explain to the judges why the Council had based its decision in part on an article that was labeled as having been written by an AI bot called “Carmen.”
He was also asked about the reliance on another website, called “Russian Crimes,” that seemed to have been written by journalists who don’t exist, and which the Council cited in its legal responses to complaints against the sanctions decision.
A reverse image search on the Russian search engine Yandex reveals that one of the headshots of the alleged authors is of a New York-based model, while the profiles of other authors appear to use stock photos.
In its latest round of sanctions, adopted in June, the EU broadened the range of possible targets to include family members of leading businesspersons. It also shifted the criteria from only targeting leaders in specific sectors to any businessperson working in those sectors, or leading businesspersons in Russia more generally.
“To our knowledge, this change of approach is unprecedented in the history of EU sanctions,” said Sven De Knop, a lawyer at the firm Sidley Austin.
As part of its push to make the sanctions stick, the European Council sent around an apparent catch-all document on Russia’s economy as supporting evidence.
The 248-page document, labeled “LIMITE” and seen by POLITICO, is meant to “serve as evidence supporting the listing of certain economic actors, including businessmen, executives and managers, their family members and other individuals involved in business activities in Russian Federation [sic]… by showing the business environment and economic reality in which they function.”
Like the evidence packet, the document relies on material that seems to have been hastily grabbed from the internet, including a spreadsheet, “translated by DeepL,” of the Russian Federation’s 2020 budget, a link to the Wikipedia article about Russia’s RTS stock index and screenshots of websites of Russian export statistics, complete with targeted ads for FlirtFinder (“voel je je alleen?” — “are you feeling lonely?”) and winter parkas.
The report also includes typos and incomplete information, such as relevant excerpts that are “to be added.”
“It is hard to exactly understand what this document really is/means,” one lawyer who represents sanctioned Russians said in an email.
“At this point, it is a bit like reading tea leaves but one educated guess could be that this is the result of the alleged ‘assessment’ conducted by the European Council,” the lawyer said. “If that is the case it is hard to say whether one should laugh or cry.”
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