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The London Legal Sector is Still in the Pocket of Russia

The invasion of Ukraine has exposed Russia’s vast web of influence entangling – and enriching – Western law firms and the professional services sector.

And nowhere is more complicit than Londongrad and its cherished institutions of justice. Supported by a fawning crowd of British QCs, lawyers, and litigation funders, the British courts have been a playground for oligarchs to sue each other, attack journalists, and aid the Russian state in its pursuit of businessmen and bankers who have run afoul of the Kremlin.

Unsurprisingly an equally vast number of this supporting cast quickly hit the panic button and moved to separate themselves from Russia by dropping clients and closing offices in Moscow once the invasion of Ukraine commenced. Apparently, Russia’s concerted campaigns to disrupt democracy in the West, commit catastrophic chemical attacks in Syria, and the annexation of Crimea didn’t quite qualify as moral red lines.

Yet despite all the talk, many of those who have vowed to cut all ties with Russia continue to exploit loopholes in the current sanctions regime to support nefarious activities on behalf of the Russian state.

Remind you of anything? Move over greenwashing, there’s a new cynical sport in town and it’s called “Russiawashing.”

Many of the big players are at it, and it’s doing the reputation of Global Britain no favours on the international stage. Just this week, Steve Cohen, a Democratic congressman from Tennessee, urged the Biden administration to ban six British lawyers from entering the U.S. because they had “enabled Putin’s oligarchs by engaging in abusive lawsuits against journalists to silence them.”

This includes Hugh Tomlinson and Geraldine Proudler of CMS, a firm that has also recently been named and shamed by Kevin Hollinrake MP. In an open letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, Hollinrake revealed that CMS was exploiting a loophole in the sanctions regime to act on behalf of the Deposit Insurance Agency (DIA). The DIA is a Russian state-owned entity responsible for pursuing funds and assets in both Russia and abroad from failed Russian credit institutions and their shareholders.

With the invasion of Ukraine proving expensive for Putin, the Kremlin needs a helping hand to fund these cases – and the DIA is a key tool to get hold of valuable foreign assets. After all, justice doesn’t come cheap in Londongrad.

The DIA is even relying on British funding to kick-start the process of repatriating Russian assets. Step forward Harbour Litigation Funding, a litigation funder who was also named by Hollinrake as the party putting up the funds for the DIA and CMS to pursue bankruptcy proceedings against Anatoly Motylev, the former owner of the Russian Credit Bank, who is said to owe more than £2 billion.

That’s a hefty sum. And despite claiming to have now pulled out of the case, Harbour refused to comment when recently asked if it would still receive what is alleged to be 30% of total recoveries from DIA cases it funds. Regardless, whatever is left after Harbour receives its cut, Grant Thornton, the accountancy firm acting as court-appointed trustee in the case, will kindly ensure that the rest finds its way into the pocket of the DIA – all while proclaiming its innocence and professional integrity. One can only assume this funding will come in handy for Putin’s war effort.

Not to worry. These firms claim they aren’t breaching any sanctions – this is all above board. In their eyes, there’s nothing to see here.

But as Hollinrake pointed out, the actions of these firms and others like them are detrimental to our attempts to starve the Russian war machine out of the funds it needs to continue committing atrocities in Ukraine.

While the DIA itself is not subject to sanctions, senior DIA executives are. This loophole, and the willingness of the likes of CMS and Harbour to exploit it, is particularly egregious as this organisation has long been used by the Russian state to conduct state-sponsored corporate raids and intimidation against political opponents in exile, including by deliberately bankrupting individuals or their companies.

For the sake of Ukraine, this loophole must be closed. But just as importantly, we mustn’t ever forget the lawyers, firms, and funders who profited from it. They must be held accountable, and we could do a lot worse than heeding the call of Rep. Steve Cohen by banning the likes of CMS, Harbour, and those like them from operating in the U.S., London, and beyond.