UKRAINE UPDATE: 24 NOVEMBER 2023
UAE tightens scrutiny on Russian firms; ‘We spit on your sanctions,’ Russian propagandist tells EU
Russian firms based in the United Arab Emirates are coming under greater scrutiny from local banks as the Gulf state faces increased US pressure to tackle sanctions evasion and ramps up efforts to get off a global organisation’s watchlist.
The European Union promised to shut down the flow of Putin’s propaganda after Russia invaded Ukraine, slapping sanctions on state-backed media RT and Sputnik days after the attack, but nearly two years into the war, the Kremlin appears to have the last laugh.
Clampdown on flood of Russian money into UAE
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) attracted a flood of Russian money in the year after President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into Ukraine, with firms finding banking quick and easy to navigate. That process has gradually grown more arduous, with rejections increasingly common, because the UAE is showing less appetite for sanctions-related risk and pushing to get off the so-called grey list, according to more than half a dozen business owners and consultants interviewed by Bloomberg, who asked not to be identified as such information isn’t public.
Money transfers — whether for companies repatriating funds to Russia or moving cash to a third country — have also been subject to greater oversight and now take more time, the people said. Some banks are demanding more documentation, and at times blocking funds, while seeking justification for the transfer or questioning the origin of the money, they said.
In the initial aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, UAE officials hewed to policies that attracted a surge of inflows from high-net-worth individuals. In recent months, officials have looked to close perceived gaps in sanctions compliance, the people said, as the UAE seeks to be removed from a list of jurisdictions subject to more oversight maintained by the Financial Action Task Force, a group that aims to combat global money laundering.
In the meantime, the US, UK and European Union have ramped up pressure on Emirati officials to tackle illicit flows and close channels used by Moscow to skirt trade sanctions and finance the Kremlin’s war machine. This month, the Biden administration targeted several UAE-based shipping firms, part of a crackdown on non-compliance with its oil price cap.
“In terms of financial compliance, it has become much more difficult to be Russian in the UAE, and the situation is getting tougher,” said Daria Nevskaya, a Dubai-based lawyer who consults with clients on cross-border deals and bank accounts. “Some banks that previously had been accepting payments from Russia have put a stop to such transactions now.”
Russia ‘spits’ on EU sanctions in escalating propaganda battle
The European Union promised to shut down the flow of Putin’s propaganda after Russia invaded Ukraine, slapping sanctions on state-backed media RT and Sputnik days after the attack.
Nearly two years into the war, the Kremlin appears to have the last laugh. RT.com may be inaccessible in the EU, but a series of less popular mirror sites provides the same content, aimed at undermining the bloc’s support of Ukraine. One is swentr.site, or RT News in reverse.
“We spit on your sanctions,” said RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan in comments relayed by her press office.
Swentr was registered three days after the sanctions were announced by RT’s licensee, ANO TV Novosti, according to the WHOIS domain registration directory. It is one of at least 19 such sites that RT appears to use to reach audiences in the EU, according to the research group Reset.
Russian disinformation platforms have proven to be more flexible than EU attempts to rein them in, popping up under new names to provide links for its contributors and other blue-tick X users to push the Kremlin’s agenda, creating division in North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) members and fuelling confusion over the war.
The EU’s sanctions process, on the other hand, generally moves slowly and has trouble focusing on a moving target. While the EU’s executive arm provides guidance and oversight, the task of enforcing sanctions is mostly the responsibility of member states, further complicating matters.
The European Commission is aware of the mirror sites and works with member states to effectively apply the sanctions, according to Vice-President Vera Jourova, who is responsible for countering disinformation.
“I want to stress that despite some bypassing attempts, the sanctions are effective,” Jourova said. “No one can find those outlets by flipping through channels randomly. Online, news search engines and aggregators do not show results from those outlets.”
The measures have had some success in marginalising Russia’s misinformation machine. Swentr received nearly 3 million hits in October, according to traffic counter Semrush. That’s a far cry from the 141 million RT.com got despite being blocked in multiple markets.
“State media sanctions have only partly reduced the Kremlin’s ability to spread disinformation in the EU,” Reset’s EU Director Felix Kartte said. “The Kremlin’s propaganda machine is quick to exploit loopholes in new regulations.”
Sputnik, which is subject to the same restrictions as RT, also operates through mirror sites such as sputnikglobe.com. While about a dozen Russian media outlets have been sanctioned by the EU throughout the war, RT and Sputnik have the most reach among international audiences and are the most active in trying to circumvent the measures, according to Reset.
Russia continues to use “regular massive disinformation operations in various countries to influence election outcomes and doubt election integrity, to polarise societies on certain issues”, said Baiba Braze, a Latvian diplomat who served as assistant secretary general for public diplomacy at Nato until June. DM