Sberbank Developing SWIFT Alternative After Ban

Law360, London (June 17, 2022, 6:34 PM BST) -- The head of Russia's largest bank said Friday that it is building an alternative to SWIFT, the international messaging network for cross-border payments, after it was banned from the system in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Herman Gref, Sberbank's chief executive, said the bank is developing its own alternative international payment system after several Western governments, including the EU, cut off Sberbank's access to SWIFT. 

Gref, a former Russian minister for economic development, said Sberbank would complete the new system within the next year, and that the lender was working with "foreign traditional partners in the East" during an interview with Russian state-owned TV channel Russia-24.

"As for international payments, we are now in the process of developing a new payment infrastructure, an alternative to SWIFT," Gref said in Russian. "Of course, Russia remains integrated with the world economy, particularly financial institutions, this [new system] is the most important infrastructure for securing integrated accounting for international trade activity."

Gref — currently at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum — added that sanctions had complicated the foreign exchange trades for Russia, but concluded that the bank will find a solution to these problems.

The state-owned bank's CEO also said Friday that Sberbank will get rid of its loans, deposits and claims payable in foreign currencies because of the sanctions. He added that it will continue to impose negative interest rates on foreign currency accounts because of Western sanctions on the bank.

Sanctions imposed on Sberbank by Western governments have increasingly restricted the lender's operations, forcing it to make ruble payments on eurobonds denominated in dollars in May, highlighting concerns of a default.

Switzerland cut Sberbank off from SWIFT in March in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. It has also suspended the operations of its Swiss arm to protect its creditors after the lender was hit by the sanctions.

The White House imposed a total asset freeze on Sberbank in April after evidence of war crimes was discovered in Bucha, a city just outside Ukraine's capital Kyiv. The freeze affects any Sberbank asset that touches the U.S. financial system, and criminalizes American citizens and companies from interacting with the bank.

The EU followed Switzerland's example in May, making Sberbank the eighth major Russian bank to be cut off from the loan messaging network by the EU. 

Sberbank, along with other Russian companies, has also been hit with a ban on Russians using U.K. professional services, including accountants, PR companies and consultants.This would cut Russian imports in these sectors by an estimated 10%, according to the U.K. government.

The financial institution's European subsidiary has also been shuttered by authorities after heavy cash withdrawals following the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine meant the Vienna-based Sberbank Europe AG was at risk of failure.

President Vladimir Putin — giving the conference's plenary speech on Friday— called the sanctions against Russia an "economic blitzkrieg," and attacked the tough economic measures as "mad and thoughtless."

Putin also claimed the sanctions had cost the EU $400 billion, and accused the bloc of folding to U.S. pressure in imposing its economic measures against Russia.

--Additional reporting by Najiyya Budaly, Joel Poultney and Sarah Jarvis. Editing by Joe Millis.

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