11th Dec 2023


EU lawyers for Russia: making 'good' money?

  • Russian president Vladimir Putin (c) and friend Gennady Timchenko (right of Putin) meeting French business leaders in Kremlin in 2017 (Photo:
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Russian oligarchs have hired dozens of EU lawyers to unfreeze their fortunes and visa perks — posing ethical questions for Europe's legal sector.

Some EU lawyers are making what they call "good money", trying to win back what others call Russian loot.

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The oligarchs' attorneys are doing nothing wrong because right-of-representation is sacred in the EU legal order.

But the storm of litigation in the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is having a chilling effect on future EU action against Russian warfare in Ukraine.

And the attorneys are still putting their names on the line, given the strength of anti-war views in European society.

EUobserver profiles EU lawyers who took on the high-pressure Russian cases.

We see what it's like to represent a blacklisted Russian VIP in a risky regulatory landscape.

And we ask the attorneys what their conscience says about their work.

Daldewolf partner Thierry Bontinck (Photo:

Meet Mr. Bontinck

Meet the Russian oligarchs' number one go-to man for overturning EU sanctions: Thierry Bontinck.

Situated behind a handsome Art Nouveau façade on Avenue Louise in Brussels, next door to the five-star Steigenberger Wiltcher's hotel, his firm, Daldewolf, is highly respected in Belgium.

Another one of its partners was bâtonnier (president of the French-speaking Belgian bar association) in 2018.

And Bontinck himself has been a candidate for the totemic post, fellow attorneys said.

He's currently representing Russians in 15 cases in the ECJ in Luxembourg — far and away the most of any individual EU lawyer.

And the bespectacled, 56-year old Belgian barrister's rolodex reads like a who's who of Russian high society.

His clients include ex-Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, industrialist Oleg Deripaska, and Gennady Timchenko, a close friend of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Bontinck knows what he's doing.

He's worked on over 50 EU sanctions cases in the past 15 years, he told EUobserver.

"This has become one of my team's specialities," he said by email.

"We not only assist clients in the context of the war in Ukraine, but also many African clients and, in the past, Syrian, Iranian, and Lebanese clients," he said.

EU countries have blacklisted some 1,500 Russian individuals to stymie Putin's war against Ukraine.

They have locked up €20bn of private Russian opulence, including Italian villas, luxury yachts in German harbours, and Abramovich's Château de la Croë on the French Riviera.

But more than 40 Russians, who can afford to pay steep lawyers' fees, as well as a handful of Russian entities, are suing to get back their EU assets and travel perks.

They've recruited some 30 law firms in Europe to do it and Daldewolf tops the list.

Most of Russia's EU attorneys didn't reply to EUobserver's questions, in a profession shy of media attention.

But publicly-available ECJ documents give a snapshot of what's going on.

The vast majority of Russia's litigators are based in Brussels, Paris, and Luxembourg, the ECJ files showed. A few are in London, Milan, and Vienna. The rest are in Geneva, Nicosia, and Prague.

Daldewolf and other Belgian firms Acquis EU Law & Policy, JP Hordies Avocats, Grayston, Moretto, Seeds, and Strelia lead the field with 38 ECJ cases in total.

French companies Astey, Acte V, Bonifassi, Bureau Brandeis, Carlara, Far-Avocats, Kiejman-Marembert, Lectio, Muellerdaniel, Piwnica, WD Associes, and WJ Avocats are involved in 25.

Austrian firm Lansky, Ganzger + Partner (nine cases) is second only to Daldewolf.

Italian company Campo scooped six cases.

British firm Blackstone Chambers and British-Chinese company Dentons, as well as Swiss firm BM Avocats, have four each.

Dentons, the sixth-largest law company in the world, is the only giant involved.

It is representing Russian fertiliser baron Andrey Melnichenko in the ECJ, who wants back his €540m boat, called Sailing Yacht A.

Many of the others, like Daldewolf, are boutique firms with glittering reputations.

Lansky, Ganzger + Partner boasts a star-studded "Senior Expert Counsel", for instance.

Its luminaries include former ECJ judge Maria Berger and ex-European Court of Human Rights judge Elisabeth Steiner, as well as two former Austrian ambassadors to China and Turkey.

And it now represents Melnichenko, Russian steel boss Dmitry Pumpyansky and his wife Galina, as well as coal magnate Vladimir Rashevsky.

In another example, Belgian lawyer Alain De Jonge made his name defending princess Delphine of Belgium, a royal love-child, to get her title in 2020.

He and his law firm Seeds now represent Russian cigarette baron Igor Kesaev, who's pleading in the ECJ he was blacklisted out of "discrimination", just because he was "rich" and "Russian".

French barrister William Julié is advising the Italian state in a high-profile case on French extradition of old Red Brigade terrorist-group members.

He also speaks as a legal expert on TV and at EU and US conferences.

And Julié is currently representing a Russian oil tycoon called Farkhad Akhmedov, whom EU sanctions describe as being "close to the Kremlin" and feeding it "substantial" income.

The numbers of Russian cases, clients, and EU lawyers don't tally up neatly because some Russians hire multiple law firms for the same lawsuit or because they're fighting more than one case.

A few ECJ files also ID client initials only, further clouding the picture.

And EUobserver is grateful for any clarifications to our list of who's representing who.

Daldewolf's Art Nouveau offices on Avenue Louise in Brussels (Photo: EUobserver)

Chilling effect

On the other side, the EU Council, representing member states, has been fighting sanctions challenges from around the world for decades.

These used to come in at the rate of maybe a dozen or more a year before the Ukraine war.

But the storm of over 75 new Russia-linked lawsuits in the past 16 months was "unprecedented", lawyers said.

It was so much that the ECJ's press office created a first-ever Russia caseload spreadsheet to help journalists.

And judges annulled EU sanctions on Violetta Prighozina, the mother of notorious Russian mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, in March in an initial verdict in the snowballing series.

The EU Council is likely to appeal against Prighozina.

It can also re-blacklist her on modified grounds in future if it loses this case.

But given that she was designated for similar reasons as several other Russian VIPs, EU diplomats fear Prighozina's victory could be the first of more bad news.

And that risks having a chilling effect on future EU action against Russia's war effort.

Poland and Ukraine have been pushing for the EU to blacklist Russia's richest businessman, steel baron Vladimir Lisin, in the forthcoming 11th round of Russia sanctions, diplomatic sources said.

Ukraine says it gave the EU classified evidence that Lisin is supplying Putin's military-industrial complex.

But an EU diplomat said: "We can't move ahead until there's a political consensus and an evidence package that will stand up in court, especially in light of the Prighozina ruling".

And Lisin's Belgian law firm, Hanotiau & Van Den Berg, situated down the road from Daldewolf on Avenue Louise in Brussels, is already in pre-litigation mode.

"If you agree to remove the article from your site, we confirm that NLMK [Lisin's steel firm] waives its right to reply," its attorney, Paul Lefebvre, told EUobserver in a letter in March, referring to an article which spoke of Ukraine's allegations.

EU capitals cared "deeply" about ECJ rulings, a second EU diplomat said.

"It's not just a legal game going on here — there's [Russian] communications going on around this which can undermine what we're trying to do," he added, referring to Russia's anti-Western propaganda.

"We [the EU] talk about defending the international rules-based order in Ukraine. So, when talking about that, it's vital to be seen as upholding it yourself," he said.

The Russians are using European law firms because ECJ litigators need to be registered at the bar of an EU or European Economic Area (EU27 + Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway) country.

And Russian business is concentrated in Brussels and Paris because many British barristers hung up their ECJ wigs after Brexit.

But in a realpolitik landscape, oligarchs are also turning to boutique EU companies because some major Western law firms find Russia toxic in reputational terms.

"Some law firms are positioning themselves, especially in the US and in the UK. They're just acting in accordance with their governance and their values, and that's fine," Emmanuel Plasschaert, Belgium's current bâtonnier, told EUobserver in an interview.

François Moyse, a Luxembourg-based attorney representing a Russian client, said by phone: "When you say 'Russia' people stop thinking and say: 'I'm not going to touch it because I may be seen as a firm that's pro-Russian', which is stupid, but that's the way society now functions".

"Obviously, we're exposed to pressure when we defend these clients," Julié, the French barrister, also said in a phone interview.

"But one, we're used to it, and two these are areas of law that are extremely exciting and politically challenging, if we did not like that challenge, we'd be doing labour law, or maritime law or something else," he said.

Luxembourg-based attorney François Moyse (Photo: Olli Eickholt)

Making good money?

For those happy to take the reputational heat, financial rewards can be considerable.

A full-fat ECJ sanctions case, including appeals, can take 18 to 24 months and generate hundreds of billable hours by a team of partners and junior attorneys.

That could add up to over €500,000 in fees, according to several lawyers with experience of ECJ litigation who spoke to EUobserver.

A more petite team might do it for €150,000 to €250,000 per lawsuit.

The high end of the industry estimates would make the 76 Russia sanctions cases worth tens of millions of euros put together.

That would be peanuts for a company like Dentons, which has a turnover of billions.

But €500,000/case would be serious money for chocolate-box sized companies in Brussels or Paris.

Daldewolf posted a profit of some €700,000 in the National Bank of Belgium registry for 2021, the year before Russia invaded Ukraine, so its 15 new Russian cases might well make 2022 a bumper year.

Several 100-billable hour cases could also mean big money for individual lawyers.

Some attorneys in Belgium set up their own mini-companies, giving a glimpse into their private finances.

And Bontinck's firm, Thierry Bontinck Avocat, posted a profit of €70,000 also in 2021, before his Russian clients came on board.

The ECJ registry reveals just one tip of a vast mycelium of ongoing legal work for blacklisted Russians in the EU.

This extends to law suits at member-state level.

In one example, Belgian firm Strelia is representing Russia's National Settlement Depository (NSD) in an ECJ challenge.

And Strelia is fighting for NSD in Belgian courts against multinational UK law firm Clifford Chance, after Belgian financial-services company Euroclear hired the Brits to sue the Russians for information on money transfers.

Russia-sanctions lawyering also extends to kitchen-sink items.

This could be helping blacklisted clients to legally move their money via EU banks to fulfil ongoing contracts, or make maintenance payments on impounded boats and villas.

But back on ECJ litigation, big wins, such as the Prighozina case, might see bonuses rain down from Moscow.

And the Russians' deep pockets are open on EU sanctions, according to research by independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta Europe for EUobserver.

Some oligarchs have created multi-pronged task forces to try to beat the EU blacklist.

These included Russian lobbyists, PR specialists, and Russian lawyers, led by a "political technologist" (a high-level spin-doctor), on top of their EU-based litigators, Novaya Gazeta Europe said.

Timchenko, whose personal fortune is €17.3bn according to Forbes magazine, has so far spent some €14m overall on his anti-EU sanctions campaign, including about €1m on lawyers, a Russian source said.

Russian banker Mikhail Fridman (worth €11.8bn) has spent over €5m overall on his campaign, a second Russian source said.

And circling back to the EU, one German attorney showed a wry sense of humour about popular stereotypes of lawyerly venality.

Different EU lawyers charged different fees because "like the Louise girls in Brussels, some are cheap for a reason", joked Andreas Geiger by email, referring to prostitutes who work on Avenue Louise in the EU capital after dark.

German law firm Alber & Geiger used to lobby in Brussels for ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, before Yanukovych hired Blackstone Chambers in London to sue at the ECJ.

But joking aside, none of the EU barristers who spoke to EUobserver saw any shame in being well paid for Russia-related work, despite its political sensitivity.

"If we have a premium for success, then good for us and good for the client and this is the same for all clients," Julié said.

"Knowing that they are serious lawyers, if they found a way to make good money, then good for them, it's not forbidden," said Moyse, speaking of Daldewolf.

"My personal situation is comparable to that of any partner in a medium-sized independent Belgian firm," Bontinck said.

ECJ in Luxembourg seeing 'unprecedented' volume of Russian cases (Photo:

Red-line risks

The EU lawyers have to work within strict red lines to comply with Europe's toughest-ever sanctions regime.

They need a treasury licence for every invoice to get paid because their clients are under an EU asset-freeze.

In Paris, civil servants in the Direction Générale du Trésor take no more than 10 days to authorise bank transfers from blacklisted accounts.

But that's fast by other EU standards, said Julié, the French barrister.

Highlighting the unpredictability of working in a war-related sector, London, a historical centre of Russian litigation, temporarily crashed after Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and the UK began freezing Russian assets.

"A very large number of Treasury licences were applied for, but very few were granted prior to 22 October 2022," the British Bar Council told EUobserver in a statement.

"Almost no legal work for the potential benefit of designated persons could be done at this time," it said.

And even the more stable French system gets on lawyers' nerves.

DG Trésor in Paris once asked Julié for a power of attorney to prove he really represented his client before clearing payment of the French barrister's fee.

It has also asked him to detail what legal services he was billing Akhmedov for.

But Julié refused on both counts.

"We have in France what's called a 'mandat général présumé'," Julié said. "As I'm sworn to the bar here I'm supposed to be sufficiently trustworthy for someone from the administration [DG Trésor]", he said.

"This [billing details] is privileged information and I'm not authorised by my professional code to disclose what exactly I'm doing for the sanctioned client. That's none of their business," he added.

Russia sanctions work involves other petty irritants.

In normal times, a top lawyer might well meet a VIP client at least once to formally ID them, but blacklisted oligarchs can't visit Europe because they're under a visa ban.

And if their EU attorneys need to go to Russia — just open your favourite app, try to book Brussels-Moscow or Paris-Moscow flights and see how annoying that gets, amid an EU-Russia aviation crunch.

The oligarchs' entourage of Russian lawyers, who the EU attorneys work with on a day-to-day basis, are free to fly to EU capitals, but seldom do for the same reason.

And discussing high-value information on Zoom jangles security nerves.

"It's a problem," said Julié, whose ECJ client was stung in March, when Akhmedov said Putin was "a Satan" who "doesn't give a fuck about the [Russian] people", in a leaked phone call with a Russian friend.

"They [Russian clients] might be in a situation where it's difficult for them to say some things freely when they're online," Julié said.

Julié's client lost access to his superyacht, Lena (Photo: @Superyachtfan)

EU consultancy ban

EU sanctions declare that blacklisted Russians, just like everybody else, must have access to legal representation in Europe for "exercise of the right of defence in judicial proceedings".

But the EU's Russia sanctions ban most other legal services available to ECJ plaintiffs from the rest of the world.

This includes an EU-wide ban on commercial consultancy and lobbying for all Russian companies and nationals — whether EU-blacklisted or not.

The consultancy ban covers "advisory, guidance, and operational assistance services provided to [Russian] businesses for business policy and strategy".

But the Belgian and French bar associations say this is such bad law they're suing the EU Council to soften the regulation.

"The mere service of a lawyer giving advice unrelated with potential litigation is prohibited and that's a bridge too far for us," said Plasschaert, the Belgian bar-association chief.

"If the persons targeted are prevented to seek advice from a lawyer it's helpful in the combat against Russia, so I understand the whole idea, but the problem is that by excluding the service of a lawyer you touch on a fundamental right of everyone," he said.

Meanwhile, if the Belgian and French bars are up in arms, the Austrian one, Örak, sounded less bothered — indicating an EU-27 patchwork of implementation.

"Some advisory services are no longer possible, as they fall under the sanctions," Örak president Armenak Utudjian said by email.

"It is not our impression that these services would have formed a relevant share compared to the whole of legal advisory services in Austria," he added.

An upcoming 11th round of Russia sanctions aims to relax things, according to a European Commission proposal dated 5 May and seen by EUobserver.

"To expedite the divestment of Russian operators from the Union market, Decision (CFSP) 2023/XXXX introduces a temporary derogation from the prohibition on providing legal advisory services to legal persons, entities or bodies established in Russia," it says.

The derogation is to last until 31 December and cover "legal services which are mandatory ... such as notary services".

But it remains to be seen how sanctions talks go, making the EU red lines moving targets.

Dilbar, impounded by Germany, belongs to family trust of Russian metals tycoon Alisher Usmanov (Photo: Tiomax80)

EU lobbying ban

EU sanctions also ban "advisory, guidance, and operational services related to improving the image of the [Russian] clients and their relations with the general public and other institutions".

In general, lobbying by law firms is so normal that 85 of them have signed up to the EU Commission's influencer registry in Brussels, according to NGO Transparency International.

None of the Russian oligarchs' EU law firms have done so and details of litigators' meetings and correspondence are shrouded in professional omertà.

Some have high-level contacts.

As mentioned, Austrian firm Lansky, Ganzger + Partner, for instance, has former European-level judges and top Austrian ambassadors on an internal advisory panel.

The firm's Gabriel Lansky dismissed any suggestion this might give his clients an edge in the EU Council's internal sanctions talks.

"It has nothing to do with lobbying the Austrian government," he told EUobserver by email.

"These individuals are members of our 'Senior Expert Counsel'. Their role is to provide our firm with analyses on the international politics and business environment, and not to intervene in government decision-making in any form," Lansky said.

But if that's how things work in Vienna, then lawyering and lobbying go hand-in-hand in other corners of the EU.

Nicosia-based law firm Scordis Papapetrou & Partners is currently defending the Russian Direct Investment Fund in the ECJ.

It also represented VIP Russians in the EU's Cyprus bailout 12 years ago, according to Panicos Demetriades, Cyprus' former central bank governor.

"Scordis and Papapetrou were among the firms pressuring me at the time I was governor [2012 to 2014] to protect Russian bank depositors [in the bailout]," he told EUobserver by email.

And disentangling the tentacles of law and politics on the island will be a Herculean task, said Demetriades, who now teaches economics at Leicester University in the UK.

"All the Cyprus law firms with high-ranking Russian clients are well connected in the Cypriot political system — otherwise Russians won't feel protected," he said.

Scordis didn't reply to EUobserver.

But in a final pause for thought, some of the Russians' EU litigators are likely well-aware that they're being used as pawns in a wider political offensive.

The oligarchs' Russian attorneys are "highly professional" when it comes to ECJ cases and "never talk about politics", according to one Belgian barrister, who asked not to be named.

But some oligarchs initiate EU court proceedings without really caring if they win, just to give their Russian political technologists a pretext to talk to EU politicians and media about softening sanctions, Novaya Gazeta Europe's sources said.

The ECJ litigation acts as a "cover" for Russian lobbying and oligarchs spend most of their anti-EU sanctions budget on Russian government-relations and media-relations firms, Russian sources said.

Diplomats in EU Council in Brussels (Photo:

From Russia, with 'poison'

Russia's EU lawyers also spam EU officials with letters urging them to let their clients off the hook, on top of any ECJ evidence submissions or hearings.

EUobserver filed a freedom-of-information request to the EU Council to see what they send.

The council declined, but three letters seen by this website shine a light behind the scenes.

In one 37-page epistle from May 2022, Russian oligarch Abramovich's Belgian attorney issued the council a point-by-point rebuttal of EU charges.

In a four-page note a few days later, the same Belgian lawyer forwarded an "absolutely confidential" memo by a Ukrainian official, which said Abramovich had helped in Russia-Ukraine "peace negotiations".

"This further demonstrates that no restrictive measures are justified," Abramovich's lawyer, Bontinck, said.

This type of thing isn't lobbying, because you're doing it to build your client's ECJ case, in what attorneys call the "administrative phase" of proceedings.

"When you formally address the [EU] Council as its counterpart in the course of an ongoing litigation process there's no lobbying involved — you're just presenting your arguments," said Julié, the French barrister.

But other lawyers' letters on Russia risked sounding more like "improving the image of the [Russian] clients" in general terms — which is now an EU-sanctions violation.

In a three-page complaint dated March 2023, a group calling itself "European lawyers" wrote to the EU Council depicting the blacklisted Russian "women, men" as "victims" of a bungling and unfair EU process.

The letter portrayed EU officials as fools who thought "questionable online-tabloid articles and anonymous blogs" constituted evidence.

It mocked EU "failures" and "gross misrepresentations", without footnoting any of its claims.

It also used colourful rhetoric, describing the EU sanctions process as a "poison with devastating effects for the [European] Union".

The 16 EU attorneys who signed it came from Austria, Belgium, France, and Italy and almost all of them are working on ongoing Russian cases in the ECJ.

But the letter's portrayal of how the EU works was well off the mark, diplomats said.

Blacklists undergo "robust" legal screening in the EU Council, EU Commission, and the 27 national capitals, which can take months, one EU diplomat said.

"One of our main concerns is to build a strong, legally-sound case," he said.

And Russia's EU attorneys should think twice before putting pen to paper, said Alexis Deswaef, a prominent Belgian human-rights barrister.

"There is clearly a risk of crossing the red line between the fundamental right to be defended and lobbying in favour of a pro-regime oligarch to lift sanctions against him," Deswaef said by email.

Belgian bâtonnier Emmanuel Plasschaert in the Palais de Justice (Photo: EUobserver)

'Honour' and 'conscience'

And even if right-of-representation is a pillar of the EU legal order, helping oligarchs to batter EU sanctions as Russian warfare escalates poses ethical dilemmas.

"Our core principle is that everyone, every person, every organisation, or company has the right to be assisted and to be defended if needed by a lawyer," said Plasschaert, the Belgian bar-association head.

The bâtonnier spoke to EUobserver in the Cyclopean atrium of the Palais de Justice, the national court building in Brussels, lending his words extra gravitas.

If you break that principle, "that's the end of everything. Well, that's the end of rule of law," he said.

The bar councils in Austria and Britain were equally solemn about Russian rights in Europe's rules-based order.

"The goal is to ensure that every person's fundamental rights in the area of justice are respected," said Utudjian, the president of the Austrian bar association.

The British Bar Council has set standards in London since 1894.

And its code of conduct is needling on the point.

Rule 28 says: "You must not withhold your services ... on the ground that the conduct, opinions or beliefs of the prospective client are unacceptable to you".

"If a barrister is offered a case, which they are competent to do and available to take, then they must take it," the British Bar Council told EUobserver.

"Specifically, barristers cannot decline to represent Russian clients simply because they are Russian," it said.

But for all that, the Austrian, Belgian, and French codes are less severe, meaning that most individual EU attorneys were free to say no when their war-time Russian clients approached them.

"I will not advise or defend a case which in my honour and conscience I believe not to be a just case", the Belgian bar oath says.

"Lawyers can decline to take on clients," Austria's Utudjian also said.

And it isn't chivalric fiction.

When one Russian client approached a Belgian law firm last year it called a board meeting to see if all its partners felt comfortable about going ahead, according to two colleagues, who asked not to be named.

But one partner said they wouldn't work on the case on ethical grounds, even though the company said yes in the end.

French barrister William Julié (Photo: William Julié)

How does it feel?

Plasschaert, the Belgian bâtonnier, gave an insight into how legal hearts and minds tackle the thorny issues.

Referring to the "conscience" oath, he said: "If you think: 'I wouldn't be a good lawyer for that person because I'm disgusted by what he or she did', then it's basically your duty as a lawyer not to take the case".

"But if you could have some distance between your personal thinking, your personal feelings, and what he did, then it's your job to take the case," Plasschaert said.

The 55-year old Belgian attorney specialises in labour law.

But when asked hypothetically if he would feel okay about representing a Russian oligarch in an ECJ sanctions challenge, he said: "Yes ... It may be a good case. A bad person, a good case".

"We are not the clients," Plasschaert said. "Some media sometimes say: 'Well you have the clients you deserve' No. That's exactly the point — you can have a client you don't like," he said.

Four EU barristers currently fighting ECJ cases for Russian clients thought the same.

"The role of lawyers is in no way to take sides in a conflict or in politics, but simply to defend individuals in accordance with the law," said Bontinck in Brussels.

"We work with our clients to define our defence mandate, which, while respecting professional secrecy, never involves defending an ideology, a government or, still less, military action, but rather challenging unproven allegations", he said.

The Vienna-based Lansky said: "We do not distinguish between nationalities".

"It is the call of the professional legal community in such difficult times to ensure that the rule of law in Europe is observed," he said.

Moyse, the Luxembourg-based attorney, represents Russian woman Ekaterina Islentyeva, who is suing the EU because sanctions stopped her flying her private plane in Europe.

But he voiced strong personal views on the war.

"I will make a statement: the aggression of Russia is awful. I am fully supporting Ukraine because we have to, because if not they [Russian forces] will come into the Baltic countries later. So my position is not for Russia's leadership. Definitely not," Moyse said.

"There's nothing to be embarrassed about", said Julié, the Parisian barrister.

"There's no reason for a lawyer to be thought unworthy because he decided to defend this individual or this corporation — this is what democracies are about", Julié said.

"I have friends who are human-rights lawyers who will not take these [Russian oligarch] cases on board for moral reasons and I absolutely respect that, but I also wish to be respected", he added.

Belgian human-rights barrister Alexis Deswaef with Ukrainian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oleksandra Matviichuk (Photo: Alexis Deswaef)

Take it personally

But if lawyers in Brussels or Paris can "distance" themselves from their emotions, the strength of anti-war feeling in broader European society still means they're putting themselves at risk of stigma.

When asked if a Ukrainian refugee might well feel angry at an EU attorney making good money from Russian cases, Plasschaert, the bâtonnier, said: "I fully agree with you".

"You're talking about [merely] reputational risks," he added though, downplaying the problem.

But for other distinguished legal minds the dilemmas were less easy to resolve.

"Everybody has the right to be defended by a lawyer — that's the point of our profession," said Deswaef, the Belgian human-rights barrister.

"But there are ethical reasons to decline to offer your skills, for big money, to help a client linked to the criminal Russian regime to act against the economic sanctions taken by the EU", he added.

Deswaef is vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and defends Russian dissidents seeking asylum in the EU.

He voiced higher concern on how the Russians' well-paid EU attorneys might look to Russian regime victims in Ukraine and beyond.

"How can you justify these practices of Brussels lawyers towards, for example, a Russian lawyer in exile in Belgium who has asked asylum and is waiting on an interview in a refugee camp, hoping that, one day, thanks to the sanctions, the regime will collapse and he'll be able to return to living and defending human rights in Russia?'," Deswaef said.

"Another [FIDH] co-vice president, Oleksandra Matviichuk, is a lawyer working with her team under bombs in Kyiv to collect evidence of the war crimes committed by Russia, so I'm very sensitive about the effectiveness of the EU sanctions," Deswaef added.

And speaking by SMS from Kyiv, Matviichuk also found it hard not to take Russia's actions personally.

Amid some of the EU attorneys' highfalutin talk, Matviichuk won last year's Nobel Peace Prize for defending the rule of law in Ukraine while under Russian fire.

She pointed out that many of the Russians' frozen EU assets were likely the proceeds of high-level corruption.

"For years, Russian oligarchs have built and supported a system where there are no legal mechanisms to protect a person, his or her dignity, freedom or property," she told EUobserver.

"But they are not averse to using these legal mechanisms in democratic countries to keep their loot," she added, commenting on the anti-EU sanctions pushback.

Matviichuk asked her fellow professionals in Europe not to take any conscience pangs too lightly.

"Russian oligarchs have plenty of money and can hire the best Western lawyers," she said.

"I just would like to remind you that now their colleagues — Russian lawyers — are sitting in prisons simply because they honestly performed their professional duties," she added.

View from Matviichuk's office window on 7 June 2023: Russian oligarchs look different from Kyiv (Photo: Oleksandra Matviichuk)

This story was amended on 9 June to say Usmanov made his fortune in metals and that the Dilbar yacht belongs to his family trust. It was also updated to say the EU Council declined our FOI.

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Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

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