Russia is slipping past international sanctions through a network of shell companies and murky international trade zones. According to the Washington Post, the Kremlin is engaging in commerce with the separatists in eastern Ukraine by conducting all trade through the disputed territory of South Ossetia, in Georgia, despite current sanctions placed by the European Union and the United States. Using this network, Moscow has found a way to continue bankrolling Russian-loyalists in eastern Ukraine and elsewhere in the region.
Through the use of close to 150 limited liability companies (LLCs), Moscow has successfully moved about $150 million worth of supplies and equipment into the separatist-controlled regions of Ukraine throughout the first six months of 2018. A South Ossetian bank called the International Settlements Bank (ISB) performs the physical money moves and has contact with both the LLCs and the separatists. Once the separatists transfer the money to the ISB, the bank then funnels that money into Russia. Once the cash is in Russian bank accounts, Moscow dispatches a truck which rolls across the border and makes the deliveries. Ukraine never sends cash directly over to the Kremlin nor does it ever flow the opposite direction — the transactions all occur in South Ossetia.
This scheme dates back to 2015, the same year the International Settlements Bank was founded in Tskhinvali. Also the same year the Center for International Settlements (CIS) was established in Russia. The CIS is a bank fully licensed by the Russian government and is chaired by a former KGB officer, Vyacheslav Mazurin. According to the Washington Post, the ISB and the CIS are completely separate entities; however, many experts believe the CIS is the principal “dirty money” moving instrument inside Russia. All three components — the Ukrainian separatists, the LLCs and ISB in South Ossetia, and the CIS in Russia form a “financial triangle,” whose only goal it to bypass international sanctions in order to extend Russian influence around the Black Sea.
That influence may be fading despite the best efforts of Moscow and Vladimir Putin. According to the Washington Post, countries in the region such as “Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova,” are cozying up to NATO and are shrugging off the Kremlin’s attempts at courtship. Despite Russia’s military might (or perceived might), the country is no match for the economy of the United States nor the European Union. The Washington Post reports that the United States’ gross domestic product is ten times that of Russia’s, and this inequality means that economic sanctions are going to be a lot more painful for Moscow than they would be for Washington. This gives the Kremlin an incentive to exploit separatist movements in order to push back against the West.
“Unresolved conflicts are clearly instruments of trying to keep these countries in the Russian orbit,” said Georgian official Ketevan Tsikhelashvili, who serves as the government’s chief minister for resolving conflicts with separatists, while speaking to the Washington Post. While the report makes the case proving Russia’s creative workaround, many are unsure what to do with the information, and it’s unclear if any action will be taken at all. Minister Tsikhelashvili claims that her country is well aware of what’s happening in South Ossetia, but unfortunately “not much can be done at the moment.”