EU to create ‘freeze and seize’ taskforce to take Russian oligarch’s wealth

Concerns grow that cryptocurrencies will be used to evade effect of economic sanctions

The European Union is to create a “freeze and seize” taskforce to identify and seize the assets of people sanctioned over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The bloc’s 27 justice ministers agreed on Friday to appoint a cross-border team to co-ordinate the efforts of national authorities to go after the assets of sanctioned oligarchs.

"It will be a freeze and seize taskforce that we'll organise at the EU level," internal market commissioner Thierry Breton said after the ministers met. It will involve "co-ordinating actions which are under national competence for investigations and proceedings against oligarchs," he added.

Member states will choose a person to serve as an EU “contact point” in the effort to hunt down assets, and the first meeting of those appointed is to take place next week, Mr Breton said.

It follows an announcement by the United States of the establishment of a federal interagency “KleptoCapture” taskforce dedicated to enforcing the economic measures taken to pressure Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Justice authorities would take a leading role in investigating where assets are hidden, said French justice minister Éric Dupond-Moretti.

“There are shell companies, there are various mechanisms,” he said. “We want to stop oligarchs from hiding their assets.”

The economic retaliation against Russia has unleashed some of the toughest sanctions ever used, with 680 individuals named by the EU for travel bans and asset freezes, Russian banks barred from the Swift international payments system, and the Russian Central Bank prevented from accessing its assets.

It has forced a reckoning with the prevalence of financial secrecy structures in Europe, as finding the assets to seize is expected to involve detective work to link the sanctioned individuals with their assets held through shell companies.

There are concerns that cryptocurrencies will be used to evade the effect of economic sanctions and by sanctioned individuals to hide assets that would otherwise be seized.

Two of the world’s biggest cryptocurrency exchanges, Coinbase and Binance, have rejected calls for a ban on Russian users, arguing that it would affect ordinary people in Russia.

Ireland’s EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness, who leads the financial services brief, told The Irish Times that the situation made the case for applying anti money-laundering standards to the cryptocurrency industry.

The move was proposed by the European Commission last year, but must still be negotiated with the European Parliament.

“Recent events highlight the urgency of regulating crypto-assets. We have already moved to regulate the sector,” McGuinness said.

“I am urging the European Parliament to move with speed to agree its position on the regulation on crypto-assets (MiCA). The sooner we have a regulatory framework in place, the better.”

In recent days French authorities announced they had seized four cargo vessels linked to oligarchs, as well as the luxury yacht of sanctioned Rosneft boss Igor Sechin as it attempted to flee a French port.

Billionaire Roman Abramovich, who has not been named in Britain as a sanctioned individual, announced he would sell Chelsea FC this week, and would set up a foundation "for the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine".