EU receives black and white flag in Mazepin sanctions dispute

On 20 March 2024 the EU's General Court overturned the decision of the EU to impose sanctions on former F1 driver Nikita Mazepin. The decision, which may pave the way for further challenges in the UK and Canada, provides an insight into what constitutes an "association" for sanctions purposes.   

28 March 2024

On 20 March 2024, the EU's General Court overturned sanctions imposed by the EU on former F1 driver Nikita Mazepin. The Russian driver who was fired by Haas, as a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, had been the subject of EU asset freezes and travel bans since March 2022.

Who is targeted by sanctions?

It is a common misconception that international sanctions regimes, such as the EU sanctions regime, target countries or populations. They do not. They target specific policies or activities, the means to conduct those policies or activities and those who are responsible for such policies or activities. The restrictive measures imposed under these regimes can target governments, organisations, or individuals but are not targeted at entire nationalities. 

This is an important distinction given the impact that sanctions can have on an organisation or individual. It protects innocent organisations and individuals from suffering the consequences of policies or activities which they have no control over. 

In the case of the EU's sanctions against Russia, over 200 organisations and individuals have been targeted with restrictive measures. These measures are intended to put pressure on those responsible for Russia's actions in Ukraine. 

How can sanctions be challenged?

Where an organisation or individual has been designated as a sanctions target and wishes to challenge this decision, the way in which a challenge can be brought will depend on the relevant sanctions regime. 

Where a person is designated as a sanction target under the EU sanctions regime, they can challenge that decision either by requesting the Council of the EU to reconsider the listing or by bringing an action for an annulment of the Council's decision through the EU's General Court. Where a person is designated as a sanctions target under the UK sanctions regime, they can challenge that decision through the UK courts. 

Why was Mazepin the subject of sanctions?

With Nikita Mazepin, the justification for restrictive measures was based on his close association with his father. Russian billionaire Dmitry Mazepin, who the EU described as a member of Vladimir Putin's closest circle, was a key contributor to Nikita's F1 career. His company, Uralkali, invested roughly €12 million into the Haas F1 team as part of a sponsorship deal. 

When sanctions were imposed two years ago, the EU noted that Nikita was a natural person to include on the sanctions list due to his connection to his father. However, two years later, the General Court ruled that Nikita Mazepin does not meet the "association" criteria required by EU law. 

What is the "association" criteria?

In its statement, the court considered the criteria for an "association" to exist. It stated that this required a link that went further than a purely familial bond. It required specific, precise, and consistent evidence that there was a sufficient link between the sanctions target and the policies or activities that the sanctions sought to combat. 

Interestingly, in considering this test, the court referenced the fact that at the time sanctions were imposed Mazepin was connected to his father not only through his familial connection but also through his connection with the Haas F1 team. With Mazepin having not been involved with Haas since March 2022, the court determined that the link between Nikita Mazepin and his father was now purely familial. This familial connection was not sufficient for Nikita to be considered linked to his father by common interest and could not continue to justify his inclusion on the EU's sanctions list. 

What next?

Nikita Mazepin remains the subject of sanctions imposed by both the UK and Canada. However, with both rulings currently under challenge, it is not clear how long that will continue to be the case. If the UK and Canadian courts follow the approach adopted in the EU, the door could be open for Nikita Mazepin to return to F1 in the future. 

If you require any assistance with sanctions compliance, please get in touch with Alison Rochester or Andrew Buchan in our trade and commerce team, or your usual Shepherd and Wedderburn contact.