Speakers: John Walsh, Felicia Ellsworth, Georgia Tzifa and Mariia Shulha
John Walsh: Welcome to In the Public Interest, a podcast from WilmerHale. I’m John Walsh.
Felicia Ellsworth: And I’m Felicia Ellsworth. John and I are partners at WilmerHale, an international law firm that works at the intersection of government, technology and business.
Walsh: In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. In response to the crisis, Western countries imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia and Russian officials. Today, we want to take some time to discuss Russia's war on Ukraine and specifically how it impacts the lives of everyday Ukrainians.
Ellsworth: We’re joined by Georgia Tzifa, counsel in WilmerHale’s Brussels office in our international trade and antitrust practice group and Mariia Shulha, a WilmerHale lawyer in the Brussels office who also specializes in international trade. Mariia is a Ukraine-trained lawyer and a former lawyer at a top-tier firm in the field of international trade in Kiev, Ukraine. When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Mariia had to evacuate her home and resettle in Brussels. Today, Mariia will share her story and what the Russian invasion has meant for her life and the lives of those she cares about, and about how she joined WilmerHale. And both Georgia and Mariia will speak about the implementation of sanctions involving the war in Ukraine and the intersection of international trade law and the crisis in Ukraine. Georgia and Mariia, thank you so much for joining us on this episode of In the Public Interest.
Georgia Tzifa: Hi, Felicia, and thank you very much for having us today.
Mariia Shulha: Hi everyone. Thank you for having me.
Ellsworth: Georgia, why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about the sanctions work that WilmerHale has done in this space.
Tzifa: So, in the wake of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Western countries—to a large extent in coordination with one another—imposed several packages of sanctions on Russia, Russian officials and other persons connected with the regime there. These sanctions really are unprecedented, both in terms of their scope and, at least in Europe, in terms of the effort that has been made to ensure effective enforcement. As regards the scope of the sanctions, they go far beyond what we have seen in previous packages. In the European sanctions packages, for instance—and I’m talking about those because I’m an EU-qualified lawyer—you have a general ban on the export of dual-use goods. You have very wide ancillary prohibitions, so, you have a main prohibition on the export of energy goods, let’s say, to a restricted area. And then you have an ancillary prohibition on the provision of other related services to that export, which is a very broad wording and not something that you would necessarily see in previous packages. There are also bans on the provision of various types of professional services in Russia—so, consulting services, accounting services, even legal services with some exceptions. There are various bans relating to the energy sector. So, for example, a prohibition on oil imports with limited exceptions, a price cap related to the maritime transport of crude oil and petroleum products from Russia. And that price cap also covers the transport of Russian oil products to third countries. So, all this is much broader than what we have seen before. In terms of enforcement, in the EU, sanctions enforcement is a responsibility for the member states, so not the Union, as such. And, until now, because of that reason, we have seen great disparities in intensity of enforcement between the various EU member states. Now, I’m not saying that these disparities have disappeared, but this time there is real effort to ensure that sanctions are enforced properly. And, this is both at EU member state level, where you see European countries adopting new legislation or amending their legislation to strengthen enforcement. And, most importantly, at the EU level as well, where there have been a lot of initiatives recently. Among others, there is a proposal to criminalize sanctions violations across the EU. There is ongoing work on a new asset recovery and confiscation directive. There is also talk of expanding the powers of existing EU bodies to prosecute cases of EU sanctions evasion, or possibly to even create a new body to that effect. So, I think it’s fair to say, that the war in Ukraine has served as a triggering event for a review of the EU sanctions system as a whole, and where this review would lead remains to be seen.
Ellsworth: Thank you so much for that overview of the sanctions, Georgia. Can you tell us a little bit about the work that you and Mariia have been doing, in particular, at WilmerHale, involving these sanctions.
Tzifa: Sure. We advise clients on sanctions compliance. And, as the sanctions are so wide-ranging, our clients, too, are active in a variety of economic sectors. So, from manufacturing and agriculture to transport, tech, banking, professional services, everything really. So, in order to give advice, you really have to be aware of what the client’s business is like, how transactions take place, all of that. And, from a legal perspective, I think this is what makes this work really interesting, and what makes you keep thinking and learning. Clients also ask for advice on the basis of US, EU and UK law. So, we work across offices all the time. And, of course, an integral part of our sanctions team is Mariia, who is with us today and whom I would also like to welcome. Mariia is an international trade lawyer from Ukraine, and she joined us last spring here in Brussels. Welcome, Mariia, and thank you very much for being with us today. Why don’t we start off by hearing about your work before you left Ukraine. What type of work did you do then, and what was your life like?
Shulha: I started my career in international trade law as a governmental official, and was part of the team who represented Ukraine in the disputes at the World Trade Organization. However, right before the war, I was an associate at a major Ukrainian law firm, Sayenko Kharenko, where I was primarily focused on trade, investigations such as anti-dumping and safeguards investigations. I also advised clients on different regulatory measures and of course, sanctions. What was my life like? Well, it was pretty perfect. I have never seen it that way before I lost it. I had a job, which I enjoyed doing. I lived in my favorite Ukrainian city, Kiev. I had family which I could visit every day, friends, hobbies, and I was free to choose what to do next.
Tzifa: How many years did you work as a lawyer in Kiev before coming to Brussels?
Shulha: Almost five years. Four and a half, to be exact.
Tzifa: And, can you tell us a little bit more about your life back in Ukraine before the war?
Shulha: I’d like to use this opportunity to explain a little bit about Ukraine. As you may know, Russia targets Ukrainian infrastructure to cause blackouts and heating issues this winter. And, I witness here in Europe, people were asking something like “but did you have any electricity before the war in Ukraine?” Of course, we did. Before the war, we not only had all facilities and infrastructure, but we were also developing really quickly. For example, you can start a business with a couple of clicks online. I won’t lie to you, what I’ve seen with my eyes in Ukraine is that many Ukrainians did not have high standards of living compared with the European Union. But many more did and even higher than you can imagine. Yes, you could see poor people as everywhere else, but there was also a very high percentage of those who felt pretty comfortable living in Ukraine and would not have traded it for any other place. But, the war has made its own adjustments, and a lot of people were forced to flee to save their lives.
Tzifa: Following up on what you said just now and the description you gave of your country, I think it would be good to take a step back just because so many people don’t know that much about Ukraine and would like to learn more, I’m sure. So, what does being Ukrainian mean to you?
Shulha: I will first try to answer your question with a joke. I’ve seen on the net that being Ukrainian means not only being prepared for the end of the world, but also having certain plans for the future. I hope you can feel a current Ukrainian spirit here, but jokes aside, being Ukrainian today means constantly fighting, fighting for the right to exist, fighting for freedom, and fighting with your own demons sometimes, too. Being Ukrainian means to live despite grief, destruction, losses and pain. Being Ukrainian means to love, to love your country, your people and your land. Being Ukrainian means to believe, to believe in our victory, in Ukrainian armed forces, and in the better future. And there are so many more things that being Ukrainian mean, but I won’t be able to express them all. No matter where you are brought to in Ukraine and what you do, what your background is, being Ukrainian means that when asked where the best place in the world is, you have only one answer: it’s at home, in Ukraine.
Tzifa: Thank you very much for sharing that with us, Mariia. What was going through your head after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014? Did that change the way you thought about Ukraine? The way you thought about Russia?
Shulha: The first word that comes to my mind is confusion. The invasion of Crimea took place right in the aftermath of the Revolution of Dignity, and it was difficult to understand what was happening in Crimea, since there were a lot of people at that time who supported Russia or Russian-Ukrainian politicians. But, the Donbass War, which started right after the invasion of Crimea, made it crystal clear that it was not a decision of ordinary people, but rather Russian policy. And after the Revolution of Dignity, invasion of Crimea, and the war in Donbass took place, there was no return in point to life as it used to be in Ukraine. We underwent a change of consciousness and started to build Ukrainian identity, which we never thought about before. Personally, for me, I switched to Ukrainian from Russian. I decided not to go to Russia in any event.
Tzifa: Thank you, Mariia. As we talk about the 2014 invasion, I was wondering what you think about the initial first round of Western sanctions that were imposed as a response. Do you think that they worked in the way that was intended? As a Ukrainian, did you want to see Western countries take further action against Russia?
Shulha: I’ve seen a lot of debate on this topic among the experts, but honestly, I don’t see any point in discussing the decrease in Russian economic development caused by initial sanctions, because I have a very simple answer to this question. The sanctions imposed in 2014 did not help to discourage military intervention in Ukraine, as we all witnessed now. And, the impact of sanctions was limited and apparently Russia was able to withstand the economic effect of the restrictions. So, my answer is no, the sanctions were not working. And, I won’t surprise you to say I wish Western countries had done more and imposed sanctions that could have actually undermined Russian economy, especially its military industry.
Tzifa: I think we can all understand that. I would like to turn now, if I may, to what must be a really tough subject for you, the 2022 invasion. What was your life like in the run-up to the invasion? Did you think that Russia would invade based on your experience at work or as an everyday Ukrainian?
Shulha: Honestly, I had a gut feeling that something bad was going to happen, but it was not based on any internal information or experience. I was actually begging my parents to go all together for vacation just to other countries, but they were laughing at my fears. We all talk a lot, my family, friends, colleagues about the intelligence suggestion on the news that Russia was going to invade. But, I guess we didn’t believe in it. We were just confident that the connections that we share with Russian people is enough that they won’t come to kill us. Even having this gut feeling, I had not packed any emergency backpack or something. I actually left all my belongings in my rented apartment in Kiev, and went to my parents house, 20 kilometers away from the capital in my training clothes, bringing only laptop, and luckily my passport.
Tzifa: So, you were there when the invasion actually happened, right?
Shulha: Yes, the war caught me together with my parents as we walked up on 24th of February because of the sound of bombing. We were terrified and we were not prepared for that. The day we went together to the cellar, and it was a proper basement with all the necessary stuff to stay there. My parents’ cellar was used to store vegetables, to keep them fresh. So, it was dark, it was small, and it was terrifying because there was no Internet connection there. So, we just sitted there and waited. There was one thought popping out into my head as we are invaded by the second strongest Army in the world. Well, we broke that myth, but at that time, we did think that it was the second strongest Army. And I didn’t see the point of just sitting in that cellar and waiting for being buried alive because obviously it wasn’t constructed to endure any bombing or something. So, I wanted to fight. Of course, we can all fight on our own battlefields, not particularly as our soldiers do, but we can all speak up, share our stories online, which is basically what I’m doing today.
Tzifa: And very, very grateful for that. So, how did you decide to leave Ukraine? You were there when the war started, and I suppose that after a certain time you thought about leaving. How did that happen?
Shulha: It was a really tough time because of different information we had. I remember how I was sitting and scrolling through news like all the time. I barely slept. And it was terrifying because the second day, we heard that the red tanks in Kiev already. And actually we had seen on news that tank crashed the civilian car. It was shooting in Kiev, just like on the second or third day. And, since we were close to Kiev, like I said, 20 kilometers away, also I live near an international airport. So, we decided it was not really safe area to stay. But, we actually didn’t decided like to leave Ukraine. We just wanted to go a little bit further from the airport to my other relatives. So, we basically packed in a hurry. During night without any light because it was prohibited to turn on electricity, not to cause air bombing. I didn’t have any stuff, so it was basic enough for me to pack so I helped my parents. And we went to see my grandmother. We came to her and just like that, decided to go all the way out of the country. And the story of our escape actually deserve another podcast. It was quite a story to tell you, but what I really want to share with you here is to thank the people from countries bordering Ukraine, like Moldova or Romania, who were there for us—not only with humanitarian help provided by their countries—but with their own food like apples they grow in their own gardens, with hot drinks. It was incredible to see so much people helping. So yeah, I’m happy that I can share it with you.
Tzifa: Thank you very much, Mariia. Eventually, you ended up in Brussels, right? So, if you could tell us a little bit more about how that happened—how did you decide to come to Belgium?
Shulha: Actually, with the EU regulation on the protection of Ukrainians, we were allowed to start to work as fast as we can, like register in any new country. And, I was really lucky to find this job in the WilmerHale. But still, I can’t say it was an easy experience even with all the help of WilmerHale, guiding me through each step. It was like a really vicious circle. For example, to rent an apartment, you need a bank account. But for opening a bank account, you need an address in Europe. So, it was a complicated experience and a lengthy one, but still I was lucky to start my work at WilmerHale which I’m really glad I had because otherwise I would go nuts to scroll and reading the news every spare minute of my time. And, I am really glad that from my first day at WilmerHale, I was given extremely exciting and challenging tasks. So, I’m lucky to be here and it’s my great pleasure to work with you.
Tzifa: And, and it’s the same for us. And, I’m sure that I speak for every member of the team at Wilmer. Going back to the sanctions work that we do, what do you think about the sanctions that Western nations imposed on Russia in the wake of the 2022 invasion? Do you think that they’re different from earlier sanctions? Have they been more effective, perhaps, or not? What is your view?
Shulha: I believe that the current sanctions against Russia might work better as in previous because of the collective nature of current measures and the US, EU and its partners’ determination to hurt Russia’s economy. And, I think that the most effective sanctions against Russia have been cutting it off from the SWIFT and freezing its foreign reserves. But, the issue with sanctions’ effect is that it can only be seen in the long-term perspective, since Russian economy has not collapsed yet. It’s hard to talk about real economic impact on Russian economy.
Tzifa: In your view, how important are US sanctions as compared to sanctions from other countries against Russia? We also mentioned the coordinated nature of the sanctions. So, what are your thoughts on that?
Shulha: I believe that sanctions imposed by the US can be very significant, particularly when they are part of coordinated effort with other countries. The United States is one of the largest and most influential economies in the world, and its financial and economic systems are deeply interconnected with those of other countries. That’s why the US sanctions can have a significant impact on Russia. That being said, the effectiveness of the US sanctions depends on the level of cooperation and coordination with other countries, and in this case, with the European Union, in particular. As the US is a major trading partner with Russia and its Member States have close economic ties with Russia, I think the sanctions imposed by the US are most effective when they are part of a broader effort by multiple countries, as this make it harder for Russia to circumvent the restrictions.
Tzifa: What would you like to see the US and other Western nations do next to respond to Russian aggression?
Shulha: I will be quick and won’t surprise you that I’d like to see more sanctions aimed at weakening Russian ability to finance the war as well as weakening overall Russian economy.
Tzifa: Thank you very much, Maria. So, I think we’re coming to a close now, but if there is one more thing that you would like Americans and people abroad to know about Ukraine, what would you say to them? What would you like them to know about the country?
Shulha: I’d like to say that Ukrainians are fighting for the inherent right to live peacefully in our country in the face of brutal Russian attacks. We are fighting for democracy, human rights and the right to decide the sort of foreign security policy and future we want to have. It’s been hard, but we have proved that nothing is impossible where if there is a united effort. We are not invaders. We are at home. Home and peaceful future of our children are worth fighting for. As Anthony Blinken said, if Russia stops fighting, the war ends, and if Ukraine stops fighting, Ukraine ends. We won’t stop fighting, but we need help. Please don’t stay away because any help matters at any level. We are really grateful for all the support received up to this point, but it’s not over yet. I am confident that the truth will win, and that Ukraine will win. Please just help us to do it faster.
Tzifa: Thank you so very much, Mariia, and thank you for agreeing to talk to us today and share your story with us.
Shulha: Thank you for inviting me.
Walsh: Thank you Georgia and particular thanks to you Mariia for sharing your story with us and for all of your important work in support of sanctions to support Ukraine. We at WilmerHale are invested in this issue and will continue to work to help those affected by the war and the crisis in Ukraine.
Ellsworth: That's it for this episode. As always, thank you for tuning in to In the Public Interest. If you enjoyed this podcast, please take a minute to share it with a friend, and subscribe, rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. We hope you'll join us next time.