Mark Kersten is an assistant professor at the University of the Fraser Valley and a senior consultant at the Wayamo Foundation.
Pass through Toronto’s Pearson airport and you might spot a tired-looking plane on the tarmac. No, it’s not another delayed Air Canada flight. The aircraft is the Russian-registered Volga-Dnepr, seized by Canadian authorities in February, 2022. That plane is now likely to be forfeited, with the proceeds directed to Russia’s victims in Ukraine. But more is needed: Canada should lead an international effort to seize Russian assets and repurpose them as reparations.
Since Russia’s 2022 invasion, global accountability efforts have focused on prosecuting Russian war criminals. But going after their money is crucial, too, for at least three reasons.
First, it’s the right thing to do. World Bank estimates put the damage caused by the first year of Russia’s invasion at US$411-billion – before the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam. Only Russia is responsible for those costs. As former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy says, making Russia pay through the forfeiture of assets is “a Robin Hood proposition … You take from the Sheriff of Nottingham who was putting people in jail, and you give it to the people who were affected by this.”
Second, with the onset of fatigue among some populations over spending billions of dollars on a foreign war, using Russian assets to help pay for Ukraine’s recovery could reduce the political costs of using taxpayer dollars to support the reconstruction effort.
Third, converting Russian assets into reparations can help address Russian atrocities. As I concluded in a recent study, international crimes are lucrative, as atrocities often create opportunities for perpetrators to make money by plundering resources and creating profitable markets for the trafficking of drugs, precious resources, and even people.
Some of Ukraine’s allies are already exploring how to seize Russian assets to help Ukraine’s recovery. That includes Canada, which was the first to put in place laws that allow it to seize and forfeit assets of those involved in gross rights violations such as torture, extrajudicial killings, forcible displacement, and mass corruption.
In 2022, Ottawa announced it would use those laws to seize US$26-million from a company owned by oligarch Roman Abramovich and donate the proceeds to Ukraine’s reconstruction efforts. In 2023, the RCMP reported that more than $135-million had been “effectively frozen” through enforcement of Canada’s Special Economic Measures Act.
Other countries are exploring similar actions. But given how globally distributed Russian assets are and how complex it can be to repurpose assets for reparations, a co-ordinated international effort is needed, one that can ensure due process standards are upheld and that the right people and institutions receive funds from seized and redirected assets.
That is why the United Nations General Assembly called for the creation of an international mechanism to compensate for damages, losses and injuries caused by Russia in Ukraine. Creating such an international mechanism would be essential to address thorny legal issues that may arise. Lawfully seizing and selling the planes and yachts of private actors whose wealth was generated by grand corruption in Russia should be relatively simple. But there is a difference between seizing the assets of a private person like Mr. Abramovich and seizing the assets of the Russian state.
Accessing Russia’s sovereign assets and wealth – such as the estimated $350-billion in Russian Central Bank funds that Western states have frozen – is more difficult. Doing so would require lifting sovereign immunity, which protects state property from being forfeited. But as proposed by the New Lines Institute, this could be justified via the international law on countermeasures: lawful retaliatory measures that can be taken by states in response to the illegal acts of another state. Law professor Robert Currie has recently explained how this would be possible in compliance with international and Canadian law.
Rather than states doing piecemeal work in silos, an international legal effort could pay dividends. Are there risks? Of course. Russia could seize any remaining foreign assets, including in the mining, oil and gas industries. But as a recent plea from members of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Centre states: “If foreign partners are sincere in their pledge to help Ukraine rebuild, practical steps need to be taken today … to fully confiscate Russian assets.”
There is a final benefit to going after the wealth of Russian kleptocrats and atrocity perpetrators. At a conference I attended in Kampala, Uganda, a senior prosecutor declared that while criminals “hate losing their liberty, what they really hate is losing their stuff.”
We must remember: Perpetrators of international crimes only commit atrocities because they have the means and because perpetrating crimes is lucrative. Going after Russian assets is a smart way to bring justice to their victims. Canada can and should lead an international effort to do just that.