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Legal impasse or excuse for inaction? The state of play in the efforts to seize oligarchs’ assets

Article by Dr Maria Nizzero and Oksana Ihnatenko

February 26, 2024

Legal impasse or excuse for inaction? The state of play in the efforts to seize oligarchs’ assets

In the two years since Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine, policymakers in the Western block have made big statements of their intention to seize Russian oligarchic wealth in their countries. Sanctions were rolled out quickly to freeze assets. It was thought that their confiscation would come just as nimbly.


Experts were, however, quick to point out that confiscation was going to be an uphill and lengthy battle.[1] The most obvious solution, devising a new mechanism that would allow the seizure of sanctioned assets within the boundaries of the law and in full respect of human rights, needed time and skilled researchers. However, political interest, and with it funding for research, ran out quickly.


Despite this, proposals on how to break the deadlock on asset recovery have been made. First, it was suggested to focus on sanctions evasion as a short-term route for confiscation, albeit with limited scope, given it would only allow for confiscation where sanctions evasion is proved.[2] Supporting this approach, in early February this year, the UK government announced new reporting obligations for sanctioned individuals to disclose their UK assets, making it easier to tackle sanctions evasion attempts.[3] It is a little early to claim victory, but it’s a step in the right direction. Still, the UK response remains far from ideal. While confiscations have started appearing in the US, the UK’s Combatting Kleptocracy Cell is yet to announce a high-profile case.[4]


Upgrading the overall asset recovery response is also required.[5] After all, the oligarchs’ wealth has notoriously been amassed through corrupt practices. Enhancing the ability to recover the proceeds of crime would be a sensible move. Two Economic Crime Acts later, one of which included amendments to the Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWOs) regime, no significant case has been initiated against any high-level sanctioned kleptocrat, and law enforcement remains largely under-resourced to meet the challenge.


With sanctions and asset recovery not doing the trick, a voluntary donation route has been proposed. But even there, rhetoric and reality mismatched. Last June, the UK Government promised a route for sanctioned oligarchs to donate their frozen funds for Ukrainian reconstruction.[6] Since then, neither the route, nor an oligarch offering to donate has appeared. Even the much-anticipated sale of Chelsea FC, the result of an agreement between Abramovich and the UK Government, has stalled – provoking the ire of the House of Lords.[7]


While the UK has taken every opportunity for inaction, Ukraine has kept itself busy. As a country at war, Ukraine has developed and employed three distinct mechanisms for asset seizure: confiscation via sanctions, forcible seizure of objects of property rights of the Russian Federation and its residents, and confiscation within the criminal proceeding framework.[8] The forcible seizure mechanism is currently being applied against the financial assets of Ukrainian subsidiaries of bank Sberbank.[9] Meanwhile, the High Anti-Corruption Court has issued 34 decisions on seizure of the assets of Russian oligarchs.[10] Ukraine’s confiscation mechanisms may potentially result in contested cases in international arbitration. They also represent an exceptional scenario, given Ukraine is currently under martial law. However, they are a good reminder of the benefit that recovered assets could bring to Ukraine’s cause.


It seems that it is not just the oligarchs’ assets that are frozen in limbo; the Western asset recovery response is too. If at the beginning the legal difficulties of moving ‘from freeze to seize,’ and the lack of understanding of the issue by policymakers, could be blamed, now these seem just an excuse for inaction. Western governments had all the opportunities to act. Whether by tackling sanctions evasion, funding research to develop new legislation, strengthening existing asset recovery mechanisms against any kind of kleptocratic wealth, or encouraging voluntary donations to materialise – the options to confiscate these assets are many.


In the words of the House of Lords, this ‘reflects poorly’ on Western governments, and the UK in particular.[11] What is needed now is for rhetoric and reality to meet. Not all is lost: the sanctioned oligarchs’ pot is still there, albeit slightly depleted by their attempts to evade sanctions.


The options mentioned above are all still viable and are not mutually exclusive – now it is up to governments to listen and act. This year, different countries will undergo election processes. While the focus will inevitably shift to domestic issues, it is important that support for Ukraine, and long-term commitments to sustain its reconstruction, remain high on the agenda – if oligarchs pay, taxpayers that have been supporting Ukraine will feel some relief. Despite the complexities involved, asset confiscation still stands as one of the tangible means of bolstering Ukraine’s pursuit of freedom.


Maria Nizzero is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at RUSI. She is a member of the Financial Crime Policy Programme, which tracks the implementation and evolution of anti-financial crime policy both in the UK and globally.


Oksana Ihnatenko is a Researcher for the SMURF project at the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at RUSI.


[1] Maria Nizzero, From Freeze to Seize: How the UK Can Break the Deadlock on Asset Recovery, RUSI, October 2022,

[2] Maria Nizzero, Sanctioned oligarchs should have to list their UK assets, The Times, February 2023,

[3] Giles Thomson, New reporting requirements for Designated Persons under the Russia Regime, Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation,, February 2024,

[4] RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, U.S. Attorney General Allows First Transfer Of Russian Oligarch’s Confiscated Assets To Ukraine, RFE/RL, February 2023,

[5] SOC ACE Research Programme, How to Seize a Billion: Exploring Mechanisms to Recover the Proceeds of Kleptocracy, RUSI, March 2023,

[6] FCDO, HM Treasury, Home Office, The Rt Hon Suella Braverman KC MP, The Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, and The Rt Hon James Cleverly MP, New legislation allows Russian sanctions to remain until compensation is paid to Kyiv,, June 2023,

[7] Kiran Stacey, ‘Incomprehensible’ that Abramovich’s Chelsea funds not yet spent on Ukraine, The Guardian, January 2024,; House of Lords European Affairs Committee, Call for UK and Eu to continue support for Ukraine, and sanctions on Russia, UK Parliament, January 2024,

[8] The Law of Ukraine, About sanctions (Reports of the Verkhovna Rada (VVR), 2014, No.40, Article 2018),; The Law of Ukraine, About the main principles of forced seizure in Ukraine of objects of property rights of the Russian Federation and its residents,

[9] National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Decision from May 11, 2022,

[10] Higher Anti-Corruption Court, Decisions in administrative cases (Part 7 of Article 283-1 of the Code of Administrative Procedure of Ukraine),

[11] House of Lords European Affairs Committee, Call for UK and EU to continue support for Ukraine, and sanctions on Russia, UK Parliament, January 2024,


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.

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