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Top law firm in crisis talks to protect staff in Ukraine and Russia

·3-min read
Tanks in Ukraine
Tanks in Ukraine

One of the world’s largest law firms is scrambling to protect its staff in Ukraine and Russia amid growing fears of a war in Europe.

Senior leaders at Baker McKenzie met on Thursday evening to discuss the ongoing situation in the region and how to respond amid fears of an imminent Russian invasion, according to a source close to the talks.

It came as Italian lender Unicredit pulled out of a potential takeover of Otkritie, a Russian bank, and City sources raised concerns that sanctions against Moscow risked causing unintended consequences for international finance.

Baker McKenzie employs over 100 workers across three offices in Kyiv, Moscow and St Petersburg.

A spokesman said the law firm’s priority is to ensure its people in these offices are “secure and well”, but the Telegraph understands that there are currently no plans to pull staff out of the country.

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine are continuing to escalate, while the West has stressed that “all options are on the table” in terms of imposing sanctions on Russia.

On Wednesday, the US Embassy in Kyiv urged American citizens in Ukraine to leave the country.

Banking sources said the government had launched talks with large international lenders to understand the impact of sanctions on Russia.

It is understood the government wants to make sure there are no ripple effects for UK corporations. Sources said officials have asked about the impact of applying sanctions to complex financial securities, but one industry insider warned there are risks attached to taking measures that affect finance.

They said: "The things that will be difficult is where the government starts to move into financial products they don't understand. Some of the financial instruments have a long vesting period - maybe thirty years.

"If these get caught up in some sort of sanction, you might have to start unwinding them.

"To unpick those would be very complex and there could be unintended consequences and this is what they're trying to understand."

It follows reports that the UK and the EU are preparing to sanction new Russian gas projects if Russia attacks Ukraine.

The plans are backed by the US and aim to strike a balance between harming a key industry without disrupting current gas flows, the Financial Times reported.

Europe gets about 40pc of its gas from Russia. Britain gets little gas directly from the country, but does import from Europe, and prices in Britain closely track those on the continent.

Soaring wholesale gas prices over the past several months owing to a global supply shortage have already caused major difficulty for businesses and households.

James Wadell, head of European gas at Energy Aspects consultancy, said: “If you escalate there is the fear Russia might retaliate using gas as a weapon.

“But you have to remember that while Russia could weather a massive disruption in its exports to Europe in the short term, ultimately it would lead to its long-term political and economic isolation.

“So Russia is not super keen on rupturing decades of energy partnership with Europe and it has always stated it is a reliable energy supplier.

“Even when you had an ongoing war which Russia was participating in in 2014 you had no disruption in gas supply [to Europe.]”

It comes as Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Commission's chief, indicated on Thursday that Russia’s major new gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea to Germany, Nord Stream 2, could be halted in the event of an invasion.

The Nord Stream 2 project is part financed by five European companies including Shell and Uniper, which agreed in 2017 to finance up to 10pc of the €9.5bn project.

The pipeline has been built but is waiting for regulatory approval. It has been hugely controversial amid concerns it will be used to bypass Ukraine.

Shell's FTSE 100 rival BP, meanwhile, owns 19.75pc of Russia's state-controlled oil producer Rosneft.

Both Shell and BP declined to comment.

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