TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Tax Havens Hold Key to Success of Sanctions Against Russia

Bloomberg: How Russia Inc. Moves Billions Offshore -- and a Handful of Tax Havens May Hold Key to Sanctions, by Jesse Drucker, Alan Katz & Andy Hoffman:

Two years ago, a Dutch law firm prepared a pitch in Moscow to Russian businesses: come to the Netherlands and we can help you avoid taxes and keep your assets safe. “You can rely on our legal system!” the firm, Buren van Velzen Guelen, said in a slide presentation.

Such appeals have worked on a grand scale. Russia’s biggest oil, gas, mining and retail companies -- including some run by billionaires close to President Vladimir Putin -- have moved tens of billions of corporate assets to the Netherlands and other European countries often used for tax avoidance and capital flight, such as Luxembourg, Cyprus, Switzerland and Ireland. The firms include OAO Rosneft (ROSN), OAO Gazprom, OAO Lukoil and Geneva-headquartered Gunvor Group Ltd., which was co-founded by a Putin associate now under U.S. sanctions.  

As a result, a handful of European tax havens may hold the key to pressuring Russia to pull back from Ukraine. The extensive use of foreign subsidiaries by Russia’s richest businessmen exposes their assets to sanctions. Yet capitalizing on this vulnerability requires help from countries that rely economically on Russian capital flight and have traditionally protected investors against foreign laws.

“If it can be shown that the owners, through these Dutch structures, are people who are sanctioned, there’s no question that those assets can be frozen,” said Jack Blum, a former U.S. Senate investigator and expert on money laundering and offshore havens. “The question is, ‘How far is anyone willing to go? Are the Swiss and the Dutch and Luxembourg prepared to do that?’ Everybody’s known this has been going on for years.”

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