Why beneficial ownership is crucial in supporting current sanctions

Written by Jason Morris on Tuesday May 3, 2022

Following the situation from afar, one cannot but feel a certain helplessness at the devastating events unfolding in Ukraine.

Our sympathy, support and solidarity go out to all those affected.

The international community, it is true, has galvanized itself to action, with economic sanctions against Russian entities one of the earliest and most significant measures taken by countries and bodies around the world.

Those imposed by the UK, the EU, the US and the UN are having a major impact on the Russian economy. Already the squeeze is being felt, as Russians are denied the ability to transact in foreign currencies and the assets of several Russian banks are frozen.

Essentially, if your money is in Russia, you cannot now transfer it abroad, nor can you get it out of your bank and there is nowhere to invest. In response, Russia has raised interest rates, which only adds to the stringent measures imposed on ordinary Russians.

But is this really enough?

To ensure Russian money is controlled, and for these sanctions to work, it is imperative that the beneficial owners of sanctioned firms are identified.

Many will know that this is a key element of customer due diligence – but most will also be aware that identifying beneficial owners, and unwrapping complex structures, can be very difficult.

But with so much at stake, there has never been so much riding on getting it right.


What is beneficial ownership?

A beneficial owner is someone who ultimately owns or controls more than 25% of a company’s shares or voting rights, or who otherwise exercises control over the company or its management. In many jurisdictions, anyone fulfilling this level of ownership or control will need to be identified.

Disguising this position of influence is most often associated with criminals, who deliberately use the complex nature of corporate entities to hide their identity and avoid the reach of law enforcement.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international body that sets standards for anti money laundering and counter-terrorist financing, has long issued beneficial ownership guidance for countries and financial institutions on implementing a risk-based approach when handling customers.

The FATF Recommendations provide measures that address the transparency and beneficial ownership of legal persons, which can be used to prevent misuse for criminal purposes, and, in the current climate, to protect the integrity of sanctions that have been put in place. These recommendations include:

  • assessing the risks associated with legal persons and legal arrangements
  • making legal persons and legal arrangements sufficiently transparent, and
  • ensuring that accurate and up-to-date basic and beneficial ownership information is available to competent authorities in a timely fashion.

Add to these the recent EU Money Laundering Directives,[1] which made beneficial ownership a key provision of concern to organisations around the world, and you see the new urgency that surrounds transparency.

The introduction of public registers on the ultimate beneficial ownership of companies and other entities, something also adopted by many countries globally, further underlines this novel, collaborative desire to stamp out the issue. 

But following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, these measures have been given a new impetus.

All attention is now on beneficial owners with links to Russia, to ensure that any transactions being made are not in contravention of the new sanctions packages rolled out by countries/bodies in response.

According to a recent press release from the UK government,[2] more than 220 individuals, entities and their subsidiaries have been caught by sanctions, including 13 of Russia’s leading oligarchs.

A huge amount of work is put in to identifying these individuals and entities, and the beneficial ownership information made available through the registers in the UK and elsewhere is crucial in providing the necessary evidence that reveals a link to the Russian state.


What are the challenges?

It is not always straightforward though: many jurisdictions do not have a publicly available register of company ownership, and some that do will have inaccurate records.

Other challenges include entities whose shareholders are not ‘natural persons’. In this instance, further examination of the corporate structures is required until a natural person is identified whose influence or control exceeds the thresholds in place in that jurisdiction.

Of course, there’s going to be a lot of activity behind the scenes, with Russian money and assets being moved or transferred into jurisdictions whose records and controls are less accurate than others.

Equally, money and assets will be moved across to new ownership, in the hope that these won’t be picked up by the sanctions already in place. No doubt the financial institutions managing these customers and transactions will be alert to such behaviour and will be able to block them before too much damage is done.

The war in Ukraine demonstrates why the levels of beneficial ownership transparency we currently enjoy are so important.

To finish, it is worth reiterating the obvious: it’s crucial that financial institutions around the world pay extra attention to their processes for identifying ownership. In so doing, they could prove to be key in helping bring this awful situation to an end.

You may also like:

[1] EUR-Lex, Directive (EU) 2018/843, 30 May 2018: – accessed March 2022

[2], ‘Government announces sanctions against Russian oligarchs Alisher Usmanov and Igor Shuvalov', 3 March 2022: – accessed March 2022 


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