INTERVIEW: Ukraine calls for a total ban on all Russians travelling overseas

INTERVIEW: Ukraine calls for a total ban on all Russians travelling overseas
Oleksii Makeiev, Ukraine’s Ambassador and Special Envoy for Sanctions / wiki
By Jason Corcoran in Dublin June 1, 2022

Oleksii Makeiev, Ukraine’s Ambassador and Special Envoy for Sanctions, has called for a total ban on all Russian passport holders from travelling overseas in a potential major escalation of punitive measures imposed since the invasion three months ago.

In an interview with bne IntelliNews from Brussels, Makeiev said that his government in Kyiv has already discussed the possibility with western partner counties.

He said: “These large-scale decisions are difficult to negotiate and to push through, but this would hit the nerve of those who thought there might only be some minor inconveniences after sanctions, and they can travel to wherever to the UK, Dublin, Nice or Paris via Turkey or Serbia.”

“It is important that real Russians feel it and not just oligarchs and the inner circle,” added Makeiev. “So those who want to drink coffee in Vienna or those who have their permits to work in Innsbruck are hit directly. They must speak up and influence their government because they must bear responsibility too.”

Makeiev’s role is to work closely with Ukraine’s Western democratic allies and the international community to develop punitive sanctions against the Russian government, individuals and entities. Reporting to Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Makeiev has been a career diplomat for 26 years and was previously political director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Many Russians living in Europe are now facing additional scrutiny into their financial affairs since the invasion on February 24.  European Union regulators have told some banks to scrutinise transactions by all Russian and Belarusian clients, including EU residents. Prominent opposition figures, such as Russian entrepreneur Yevgeny Chichvarkin, and independent journalists have also been caught in the dragnet and have had their bank accounts frozen.

Russians living in the EU are already wary of taking foreign trips for fear of being stopped at customs as Western government cast a wide blanket of suspicion on all Russian passport holders.

Makeiev is clearly frustrated by how slow the EU operates in coming to a decision on whether or not to ban imports of Russian energy and commodities.

EU leaders have agreed in principle to cut 90% of Russian oil imports by the end of 2022, resolving the weeks-long stalemate over the sixth sanction package for Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. The new package also includes cutting off Russia’s biggest lender state-controlled bank Sberbank from the SWIFT payment system.

“Of course, we would love to have those decisions taken and expedited but we see that the understanding of the importance of this gas, oil and coal embargo is growing,” he said. “We are grateful for the six packages of the European Union and many more from the US, the UK and Australia, but sometimes I think we are one step too late in terms of sanctions and not enough is being done.”

The US has already banned imports of Russian crude, but the US is a net exporter of oil and cutting off Russian supplies will have little consequence for the US or Russia.

The latest EU oil ban proposal allows a temporary exemption for pipeline supplies, the key demand of Hungary, which was blocking the adoption of the sanction package.

According to European Council President Charles Michel, there was an agreement to immediately cut seaborne oil imports from Russia, which account for two thirds of Russian oil supplies to the EU. The remaining third comes through the Druzhba pipeline, but Poland and Germany are reportedly committed to phasing out Druzhba supplies by the end of the year. This would put EU oil cut at 90%, with the remaining 10% reserved for the exemptions given to Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Makeiev diplomatically rejects the argument that Germany has been one of the main stumbling blocks in agreeing a ban on Russian energy imports, even though Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned the Bundestag last month that such a measure would trigger an economic recession in Germany and across Europe.

He said: “Germany has recently been very active in changing their own approach from what we are hearing from the Vice-Chancellor and the Minister for the Economy. They calculated and that provided enough data for other countries to prove that an oil and gas embargo is possible.”

“In terms of sanctions, we need real leadership from the governments and not to be afraid to take these steps. I always ask our colleagues how many Buchas do we need to see for you to make the next important and powerful sanctions decisions.”

Makeiev is also calling on a blanket ban of all Russian lenders from the SWIFT payment system.

As part of its six wave of sanctions, the EU has just taken Sberbank, Russia’s largest lender, off from SWIFT. The EU had already disconnected sanctioned VTB Bank, Russia's second-largest state-controlled bank, Otkritie (restructured by the central bank and primed for IPO prior to invasion), restructured state-controlled "military bank" Promsvyazbank, military-affiliated Novikombank, Bank Rossiya with links to Kremlin, the state development bank VEB.RF, and private Sovcombank.

“Russia must be decoupled from the global financial systems and SWIFT,” added Makeiev.  “They have over 300 banks in Russia and those sanctions against Sberbank and VTB are powerful, but they are using other non-sanctioned banks to transfer money, allowing Russia to circumvent those sanctions.”

One of Makeiev’s key responsibilities is to monitor the ways in which Russia, Russian entities and individuals try to circumvent sanctions by using third counties, such as Kazakhstan.

“We monitor and identify the ways Russia tries to circumvent sanctions and we look at ways to close those loopholes,” he said. “This is a day-to-day job for sanctions officers and sanctions structures in different countries. With every sanctions package, some of the loopholes are being closed.”

Dubai has been pinpointed by Makeiev and his colleagues as the weakest link in the sanctions crusade against Russian capital.

Russian billionaires and entrepreneurs have been arriving in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in unprecedented numbers. Property purchases in Dubai by Russians have also surged by 67% in the first three months of 2022.

“The Emirates did not join the international sanctions coalition and Russia tries to circumvent sanctions using Dubai as well as the countries of Eurasian Economic Union, such as Kazkahstan, said Makeiev. “This is the reason why governments and politicians talk to each other and we would love that UAE is not used as a big loophole to circumvent sanctions and to relocate their businesses.”

Makeiev has no sympathy for Russian businessmen like Oleg Tinkov, the founder of Tinkoff Bank, who has spoken up against the invasion and lost a fortune. Tinkov has hired bodyguards and claims he has been forced to sell his 35% stake in the lender for a fraction of its true value after being targeted in Russia for his criticism of the invasion of Ukraine.

“I don’t feel sorry for any Russian business people and I have seen a very limited number of Russian intellectuals who oppose Russia’s war against Ukraine and have gone public,” he said.

“I think there is no excuse for any Russians who have been supportive or kept silent to enable Putin to conduct his war against Ukraine since 2014. This crime of aggression and these war crimes Russian soldiers are committing is something that all Russians are responsible for. I think it will take decades for Russians to understand and realise that their silence or their support for Putin contributed to those crimes.”