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EU wants to force Russia to pay reparations for Ukraine

The EU wants to hold Russia accountable for damage and crimes in Ukraine. It raises high expectations.

Firefighters on a destroyed building in Donetsk.

Alexander Ermochenko / Reuters

Since the start of Russia’s war of conquest in Ukraine, the EU Commission has taken a wide range of initiatives to support the country: sanctions packages against Russia, the Peace Facility Fund, which finances arms deliveries to the Ukrainian army, or the awarding of the EU candidate status at Kyiv.

In the middle of the week, Commission President von der Leyen doubled. She wants to force Russia to pay reparations to Ukraine and also set up a special tribunal to punish those responsible for the aggression.

Both plans are still vague. The assumption is therefore obvious that their early announcement is part of the information war in which Brussels has always clearly sided with Kiev.

Von der Leyen puts the war damage in Ukraine at 600 billion euros. Russia must be asked to pay for this, said the Commission President and continued: “We have the means to force Russia to pay.”

The lever should be the frozen central bank reserves of the Russian Federation, which are held by the central banks of EU states and G-7 countries. Moscow states that the blocked gold and foreign exchange reserves totaled 300 billion euros.

A profitable fund from Russian funds

The Commission would like to transfer the liquid assets from this state treasury to a fund which will then be actively managed. The profit should flow into the reconstruction of Ukraine.

The reserves would not be confiscated permanently, but would be returned once sanctions against Russia were lifted. That could be the case, for example, if a peace agreement is signed between Moscow and Kyiv. According to the Commission, the amount needed to repair war damage would then be deducted from Russia’s central bank reserves.

In an earlier statement, the EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, recommended a simpler approach, namely to withdraw the Russian reserves tel quel. However, this is not permitted under international law. The so-called state immunity protects states from foreclosure on their deposits and assets.

The EU lawyers must clarify whether von der Leyen’s fund can be implemented legally. Reuters quotes an official as saying it is unclear whether there is a legal difference between simple confiscation of assets and confiscation of profits from such assets. It’s about setting a precedent.

Commentators also point out that there are numerous practical hurdles. As is so often the case, the Commission cannot simply implement its project in this case, but is dependent on the political support of the member states.

The Russian assets are held by the central banks of various EU and G-7 countries, which first have to communicate and coordinate with each other. According to the “Financial Times”, it is not even clear where the blocked assets are located across Europe. Their actual extent is also not known. A quick implementation of the fund project is not to be expected.

The Commission now wants a special tribunal after all

The Commission also wants to hold Russia criminally responsible. So far she had considered the International Criminal Court in The Hague (ICC) to be the appropriate institution. The ICC has been investigating war crimes and crimes against humanity in various locations in Ukraine since the beginning of the war.

Not only the executing soldiers should be accused, but above all those people who planned and ordered the crimes. However, because Russia (like China and the USA) is not a member of the ICC, it cannot investigate the “crime of aggression”. What is meant by this is the attack on the neighbors.

The fact that this criminal offense does not apply is also shocking because it can be easily proven in the present case. That is why the Commission proposes setting up an independent international tribunal on the basis of multilateral treaties and with the support of the UN. Kyiv has wanted this for a long time, and various Eastern European countries also support the plan.

But the same applies here: the way to get there will be long and the support of the UN is uncertain. With its announcement, Brussels is once again adopting a concern of Kiev without knowing whether it can make a decisive contribution to implementation. Playing with expectations is risky.

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