- - Friday, February 24, 2023

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainians have fought Russians on the ground, at sea, in the air, in cyberspace and in the halls of power around the globe over the past year.

Now the country’s richest man is pursuing yet another front in the clash with the Kremlin. Oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, whose holdings included the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant that last year became a symbol of his country’s resistance to the invaders, is pressing a lawsuit against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights. He said he has been out $18 billion since the war started and he wants his money back.

As the invasion marked its grim anniversary Friday, the multifront campaign by Ukraine against its aggressors was conforming to the long-standing U.S. “playbook” on national strategy approaches described as DIME: diplomatic, information, military and economics.

The security, foreign policy and cyberintelligence aspects of the war have been extensively analyzed, and Mr. Akhmetov’s move is seen as an effort to use Kyiv’s economic and financial levers against the Russian invaders.

The widespread destruction in Ukraine brought on by the Russian invasion, seizure of private property and reported war crimes are now the focus of legal efforts in the international court by powerful Ukrainians such as Mr. Akhmetov.

“Evil cannot go unpunished. Russia’s crimes against Ukraine and our people are egregious, and those guilty of them must be held liable,” Mr. Akhmetov said in a statement released by the company when filing the lawsuit last year. “The looting of Ukraine’s export commodities, including grain and steel, has already resulted in higher prices and people dying of hunger worldwide. These barbaric actions must be stopped, and Russia must pay in full.”

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Mr. Akhmetov, 56, heads the Systems Capital Management Group, or SCM, and is reportedly the richest person in Ukraine. His vast empire includes investment firms, sports teams and heavy industry. Great wealth has meant great vulnerability as Russian forces have destroyed mining and steel sites owned by his Metinvest subsidiary and launched a bombing and drone campaign against Ukrainian infrastructure that took out substations of his DTEK power generation company.

He is a native of Mariupol, home to the massive Azovstal industrial site and one of the largest Ukrainian cities now in Russian hands.

Mr. Akhmetov said he turned to the international courts because of the damage to the Azovstal complex and his various other holdings, including the previous seizure of SCM facilities in Crimea and other occupied areas.

The fight is both legal and personal. The billionaire recently told Forbes.com that 517 of his employees had been killed and more than 1,000 wounded in the fighting. Some 13,000 SCM employees — out of a workforce of 150,000 — are serving in the Ukrainian military or national guard, and he said 1 in 10 bulletproof vests made for the military use Metinvest steel.

His group is seeking more than $18 billion in compensation from the Kremlin, but his representatives insist the legal campaign is not about just money. The Kremlin said it no longer participated in the human rights court and so the filing is moot.

“These lawsuits are more about justice than financial compensation,” Natalya Yemchenko, Mr. Akhmetov’s director of communications, said in a recent interview.

Given its broader focus, including accusations of human rights violations by Russian forces in occupied lands and the widespread suffering caused by the invasion, the initial Ukrainian lawsuits were brought in the European Court of Human Rights. More recently, these efforts have been renewed with international commercial arbitration tribunals in the United Kingdom.

For many, the lawsuits are just one sign that the underdog Ukrainians have repeatedly outmaneuvered the Russians in multiple areas. Early Russian military advances were stopped in their tracks, and Ukrainian forces recovered territory in the east and south with a surprise counterattack in the fall.

Feared Russian disinformation campaigns have failed to make much headway, Ukrainian programmers have proved adept in the battle in cyberspace and on social media, and Ukraine’s power infrastructure has not buckled — so far — despite a relentless bombing campaign by Russian forces in recent months.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a onetime comedic actor and political novice, was widely seen before the war as no match for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a wily former KGB agent who has spent the past two decades as the unchallenged leader of one of the world’s two nuclear superpowers.

Again following the DIME formula, the Ukrainian leader has emerged as a potent and effective symbol of his country’s resistance. He has rallied his forces at home with nightly morale-boosting addresses while proving an effective spokesman abroad in addresses to the U.S. Congress, the British Parliament and other venues.

Mr. Zelenskyy has also put on display a feel for symbolism. In his address to Congress in December, he presented lawmakers with a Ukrainian national flag that he had personally carried out of the besieged city of Bakhmut just hours earlier.
The speech in London this month encapsulated the Ukrainian’s diplomatic skills and his ability to read an audience.
Dressed in his now-trademark tactical military uniform, Mr. Zelenskyy repeatedly flashed “V for victory” signs, channeling British hero Winston Churchill and the 1940 Battle of Britain, as he made yet another plea for fighter planes and other support before the assembled British members of Parliament, dignitaries and clergy in the august setting of Westminster Hall.
Ms. Yemchenko, the SCM spokeswoman, said the company is under few illusions that it will ever get compensation directly from Mr. Putin’s government. She said there is great potential to impact various Russian assets frozen in financial institutions and countries around the Western world since the fighting began.

A recent U.S. Justice Department report noted that Russian assets such as boats and aircraft valued at $30 billion are frozen in institutions in Europe and the U.S. Beyond that, Russian financial reserves valued at more than $350 billion have been frozen in financial institutions by Western allies.
Mr. Akhmetov still faces the legal challenge of presenting a solid case and winning a decision, but the sanctioned Russian financial reserves present a great potential target of opportunity for Ukrainians in their pursuit of compensation. There is also substantial precedent for an international body to affect frozen national reserves.

The Biden administration was able to impose trade and financial restrictions on the Taliban government by freezing its reserves held in international accounts after the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan two years ago.

In 2003, the financial reserves of Saddam Hussein’s government were confiscated and used to help rebuild war-torn Iraq.

Mr. Akhmetov, a controversial figure before the Russian invasion who sold off his media properties after clashing with Mr. Zelenskyy, vows to keep fighting.

“Russia must be held accountable for everything it has done since 2014 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions, as well as for the actions of terrorists controlled by Russia …,” he told Forbes.com. “Russia must pay in full for the war it has unleashed, the factories it has destroyed and the infrastructure it has damaged.”

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