In a TV set setting, the interview with an economist, former adviser to Marine Le Pen at the National Front, has gone viral on social networks. On TVLibertés, a far-right web TV that defines itself as “at the forefront of re-information”, Philippe Murer explains why the gas cuts in Poland carried out by Russia are, in reality, a response to the sanctions.
Europe and the United States “did something quite incredible: they stole half of the Russian national treasure”, maintains Philippe Murer. He specifies that this “treasure, the foreign exchange reserves” is worth 600 billion dollars and euros. By freezing Russian assets, Westerners are depriving the country of “300 billion in dollars and euros”. And he adds: “Biden explains: ‘why not use it to rebuild Ukraine.’ That would be pure and simple theft. »
About $300 billion of Russian reserves held abroad have indeed been frozen as part of Western sanctions, out of the $640 billion in reserves held by the Russian Central Bank. In a Press release at the beginning of April, the European Commission estimated at least 29.5 billion euros in frozen assets, a partial figure because only half of the EU countries had transmitted their data on the subject. When questioned, the Commission tells us that this estimate is “still in progress”.
But calling the freezing of Russian assets a theft is a misnomer. “It’s not theft,” stresses William Woll, an international law lawyer and professor of international law at the Free Institute of International Relations and Political Science. For there to be theft, there must be a transfer of ownership. If, for example, your apartment is squatted and you are prevented from using it, it will not be a theft, because there is no transfer of ownership. »
A renewable six-month term
“The looting of the Russians in Ukraine, what is it called then? Should Putin do it?, asks, for his part, Pierre Grosser, historian in international relations and professor at Sciences Po Paris. A whole battery of sanctions exists vis-à-vis aggressor countries, at war or against individuals. The reasons given may be – rightly or wrongly, this is another debate – nuclear proliferation, human rights, in reaction to a coup d’etat. The objective is not to get rich: the money is frozen to try to exert pressure. »
In the European Union, the sanction packages are adopted – and lifted – unanimously by the 27 members and must then be applied in the States. The sanctions against Russia have a renewable six-month duration, an interesting formula, but which will not work for William Woll. “There is a ratchet effect (a phenomenon that prevents a process from going backwards once a certain stage has been passed), he believes. This is why the sanctions last so long. »
“Forfeiture would be theft”
On the other hand, a de facto confiscation of frozen Russian assets, an option clearly discussed for a few weeks, would be “totally illegal, it is contrary to EU law and international law”, indignant the lawyer. However, the President of the European Council Charles Michel came out in favor of such confiscation in the EU on May 5. The goal: to make Russian assets “available” for the reconstruction of Ukraine. Joe Biden had already proposed it at the end of April.
“The confiscation would be theft,” continues William Woll. As long as the assets are frozen, legally it’s not theft. It is a measure that relates to the use of the property, but there is no transfer of ownership. Seizing the assets is a confiscation, there is a transfer of ownership. It is only possible to seize assets after a criminal conviction and this seizure is linked to the conviction.
The seizure of Afghan assets by the United States
On this point, the European Commission tells us that confiscation will “largely depend on the relevant legal framework at national level”. The European Working Group on Freezing and Seizure discusses this possibility “to determine to what extent frozen assets can be separately frozen and confiscated if they meet the standards of the applicable national criminal law”.
Pierre Grosser also mentions the difficulty of implementing these “rather thundering declarations”, although the United States is already trying to do so in another case. In February, Joe Biden, by an executive order, took control of the Afghan assets, that is, seven billion dollars deposited in the Federal Reserve of New York, and frozen since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August 2021. He wants to reserve half of it for families of victims of September 11 and the other half for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.
“These seizures of assets are relatively problematic, underlines the historian. If we do it anyhow, it means that anyone can do it in a country under any pretext. “A senior American official, on condition of anonymity, had admitted in February, to AFP, that this set of operations orchestrated by the White House was “legally complicated”.