From Conflict to Courtroom: Unraveling Legal Battles in the Russia-Ukraine War

By: Jaelin Figueroa

Russia’s comprehensive invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, marked the onset of a protracted conflict characterized by fierce resistance from Ukrainian defenders, who successfully thwarted attempts by Russian forces to seize control of Kyiv and other pivotal urban centers. Subsequently, Ukrainian forces swiftly launched counteroffensives, significantly impeding the progress of the invading forces. Despite these efforts, as of March 3, 2024, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine remains ongoing, fueling a myriad of legal concerns that have unfolded over the preceding two years. Throughout the conflict, concerns have emerged not only regarding military conduct but also the involvement of Russia’s criminal networks, complicating accountability and justice. Additionally, the United Nations (UN) has ordered Russia to provide reparations to Ukraine, acknowledging the damages caused by the invasion, highlighting broader legal implications. In essence, the protracted conflict between Russia and Ukraine has spawned a complex array of legal challenges, including military conduct, criminal activities, and international reparations. Navigating these complexities remains crucial for achieving resolution and justice for all affected parties.

In response to the ongoing conflict and the need to address war damages compensation, the Ukrainian legal system has been actively engaged, albeit with some inconsistencies, in various methods of restitution. For example, starting in May 2022, the UN’s High Anti-Corruption Court was empowered, at the Ministry of Justice’s behest, to confiscate assets belonging to sanctioned Russian individuals, notably oligarchs. By early February 2024, more than 30 confiscation orders had been issued. However, not all Ministry of Justice requests have been approved, underscoring the contentious nature of the process and the necessity for prosecutors to meet stringent burden of proof standards.

Most notably was the United States Justice Department’s allocation of approximately $500,000 in forfeited Russian assets to Estonia. This transfer occurred after dismantling an illegal procurement network aimed at smuggling a high-precision machine tool,  manufactured in the U.S. and used in defense and nuclear proliferation, into Russia. The allocated funds were designated for the benefit of Ukraine, with Estonia planning to utilize them for a project aimed at expediting damage assessment and essential repairs to the Ukrainian electricity distribution and transmission system, which has increasingly become a target for Russian forces. Additionally, nearly $700 million worth of assets have been seized by the Justice Department’s Task Force KleptoCapture, which are intended for transfer to Ukraine or for use in aid efforts, but only $6 million has been transferred since late February 2024.

The task force, comprising of federal prosecutors, investigators, and analysts, has been dedicated to dismantling the intricate network of wealth associated with Russian oligarchs and Kremlin insiders. Over the two years following Russia’s invasion, the task force has initiated approximately 70 criminal cases against individuals and five against corporate entities. Department officials have highlighted that more than a dozen of those charged have been apprehended globally.

Despite this historic slew of penalties, the Russian state has had direct involvement in illicit economies allowing it to maintain a dominant power over criminal entities, particularly as Western sanctions have spurred the emergence of alternative trafficking routes for goods affected by the sanctions. Furthermore, Russia’s involvement has allowed its economy to rebound despite attempts to weaken it by increasing defense expenditures and establishing new trade partnerships in Asia to replace those lost in the West. Amidst the prolonged conflict resulting in a stalemate, China, refraining from joining U.S.-led sanctions against Russia, emerged as a key supporter for Putin. Chinese authorities escalated their acquisition of discounted Russian oil and supplied significant quantities of industrial components, luxury items, and technological goods to Russia. India also emerged as a keen purchaser of Russian oil.

In spite of the Russian government’s endeavors, President Joe Biden has sought to leverage Washington’s extensive influence by issuing an executive order aimed at penalizing foreign banks engaged in transactions with Russia’s military-industrial complex, potentially leading to their exclusion from the U.S. financial system. Other restrictions under the executive order include diamond imports and seafood imports. These restrictions will make it more difficult for specific Russian goods to enter the United States after being modified in a third country.  In the upcoming months, the United States, and allies plan to implement import limitations on specific diamonds sourced from Russia, expanding upon the current U.S. prohibition on importing Russian-origin diamonds. The latest Executive Order modifies Executive Order 14068 to grant the power to prohibit, upon assessment by relevant U.S. departments and agencies, the import of particular items mined, extracted, produced, or manufactured entirely or partially in Russia, regardless of any subsequent transformation in a third country. Moreover, the entry of specific goods harvested in Russian waters or by vessels flagged under Russia, even if these goods undergo transformation in a third country, will also be addressed. Nevertheless, it is evident that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has presented numerous geopolitical hurdles that cannot be swiftly resolved solely through executive orders given Russia’s substantial influence in the global economy.

The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, ignited by Russia’s comprehensive invasion in February 2022, has evolved into a complex legal landscape, encompassing military conduct, criminal activities, and international reparations. Legal systems across the world have actively been engaged in addressing war damages compensation. Despite these measures, Russia’s involvement in illicit economies and its ability to circumvent Western sanctions pose ongoing challenges. Amidst this, there are ongoing efforts to hold Russia accountable and mitigate its influence. As the conflict persists, new measures are expected to have a significant impact on Russia’s economy, prompting concerns about potential retaliation and further escalation of the conflict.

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