Russia scholars split over sanctions work

Academics who act as court experts in return for up to £20,000 are under a ‘corrupting influence’ claims one Russia analyst, while another expert says fees help pay his mortgage

April 21, 2023
Offering a bunch of carrots to train a pony to illustrate Russia scholars split over sanctions work
Source: Getty

You open your inbox. A legitimate-looking law firm is offering big money to produce a report on its client’s proximity to Russian president Vladimir Putin for a forthcoming appeal against UK sanctions. Do you do it?

This quandary will be familiar to many academics who study Russia, particularly since a hurried expansion of UK sanctions against ultra-wealthy Russians in the weeks after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine led to a flurry of new cases.

Jade McGlynn, a postdoctoral fellow and Russia expert at King’s College London, declined a mid-March request from a Moscow-based firm to lend her expertise on behalf of its client, fearing that the influx of reputation-polishing money into academia was a “corrupting influence”.

Though potentially “cynical”, colleagues who do agree to help are “essentially good people”, Dr McGlynn said. “I think these types of message, particularly as they tend to come very much from legal firms, can play on the sense that they’re not really doing anything wrong,” she explained.

She said some firms were willing to use Russia scholars with a superficial knowledge of the area they are “expert” in. “They love people who aren’t necessarily experts on sanctions,” she said. “They’re expert enough that they look credible, but they’re not expert in that niche area.”

Those who do choose to provide expert opinions in such cases cite differing motivations. Richard Sakwa, an emeritus professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent, said he was critical of the scope of such sanctions. 

“I’m involved because I thought it was outrageous,” he said, referring to the sanctioning of two “liberal entrepreneurs” whom he said were in the outermost circles of influence around the Russian president. “These individual sanctions are putting the cart before the horse; they’re inverting the fundamental principles of British jurisprudence,” he said, referring to the presumption of innocence.

For others, providing their expertise is simply another income stream in an era of spiralling living costs. “I’m self-employed and consultancy is where I make money to pay my mortgage,” said Mark Galeotti, an honorary professor at UCL and CEO of Mayak Intelligence, his Russia-focused consultancy.

“There is inevitably a tension for anyone who involves themselves in this kind of commercial work; how far are you bending your conscience for the sake of the cash at the end of it?” he said, adding that he had turned down work where he felt sanctions were appropriate, but that many cases were ambiguous.

Ben Keith, a barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill Chambers who specialises in sanctions cases, said academics often declined expert opinion requests, despite fees that could rise to £20,000 for a report. “It’s basically impossible to get a good, credible academic to say something that they don’t believe in,” he added.

Mr Keith said UK courts “put a lot of store” in political or country experts, who were “rarely challenged”. He said experts sometimes gave opinions on countries they knew little about, but the UK’s surfeit of experts meant he had not seen it happen in Russia-related cases. 

Fellow barrister Bill Bowring, an expert on Russia and a professor of law at Birkbeck, University of London, has had Russian visas revoked for his work on human rights and won a settlement for the widow of the polonium-poisoned dissident Alexander Litvinenko at the European Court of Human Rights.

Despite this, Professor Bowring said he would be open to giving opinions on an individual’s proximity to Mr Putin for a sanctions appeal case, but that any report he wrote would be “very clearly balanced and based on objective materials”. 

Academics who feel iffy about a particular case might try to price themselves out of the running, according to Professor Galeotti, a practice that also ensures they do well if their request is accepted. “For some people there are cases that you don’t really want to take on, but you’ll basically cite a very high fee on the principle that if you’re going to potentially be defending the semi-indefensible, at least you’re going to be well paid,” he said.

He said his prices were not, however, based on reputational risk or solely on the hours of work involved. Instead he would factor in the quality or accessibility of the information presented, plus any fees he might have to pay to contacts in Russia.

John Heathershaw, a professor of international relations at the University of Exeter, has briefed the Westminster government on illicit finance. He said officials were “scrambling around” to tighten sanctions after the Ukraine invasion because of pressure from allies to freeze Russian money laundered through London.

“Politically they had to move, and they did that by changing the law in ways that were problematic,” he said, referring to March 2022 changes to the Economic Crime Act, which removed some of the appropriateness tests previously used to judge whether an individual should be hit.

Professor Heathershaw said he had also been approached to write reports on behalf of individuals widely thought to be close to Mr Putin. “They offered me very large amounts of money to do that. I say no; other people say yes.” He said some were now offering experts the opportunity to testify anonymously in court to protect their professional reputations. “It’s a huge problem,” he added.

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Reader's comments (1)

Was Russia's invasion of Ukraine just? War always results in a great deal of collateral damage. Collateral damage is the purpose of sanctions and the West needs to inflict maximum damage upon Russia. Accepting bribes supports oligarchy worldwide. There should be no support or contact with Russia. Depriving wealthy Russians of their wealth pales in comparison to the atrocities millions of Ukrainians have experienced. Maybe we should start hanging westerners who support Russia?