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Vladimir Putin during his visit to China. May 17, 2024.

‘We have no choice now’ Desperate to circumvent sanctions and do business with China, Russian companies resort to cryptocurrency and bartering

Source: Meduza
Vladimir Putin during his visit to China. May 17, 2024.
Vladimir Putin during his visit to China. May 17, 2024.
Sergey Bobulev / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

For over half a year, Russian companies have been facing difficulties in processing payments with China. Fearing secondary sanctions, banks are refusing to transfer funds, leaving importers unable to bring goods into the country. Vladimir Putin raised this issue during his visit to Beijing in May, but the situation doesn’t seem to have improved. Meduza investigated how Russian businesses are trying to circumvent these trade restrictions and how these challenges are impacting the Russian economy.

On December 22, 2023, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order allowing sanctions to be imposed on banks from third countries if they are caught aiding the Russian military-industrial complex. Once blacklisted, these companies would be banned from holding correspondent accounts in American banks, meaning they’d be unable to conduct any dollar transactions. Following this order, dozens of Chinese financial organizations refused to accept transfers from Russia — not only in U.S. dollars but also in Chinese yuan.

On June 12 of this year, Washington tightened its demands. Previously, transactions involving five sectors of the Russian economy — technology, defense, construction, aerospace, and manufacturing — were under scrutiny. Now, the U.S. Treasury has expanded the definition of the military-industrial complex to include all companies previously sanctioned under Executive Order No. 14024. This means that the number of Russian entities that foreign banks must avoid to maintain access to dollar transactions has significantly increased. According to Castellum.AI, there are more than 4,000 such organizations.

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Biden’s executive order — neither in its new nor old versions — has yet to be enforced against banks from third countries. So far, representatives of the U.S. administration have only issued verbal warnings: Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed “serious concern” about the supply of machines and microelectronics to Russia, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen publicly mentioned the sanctions risk during her visit to China in early April.

This was enough to trigger significant shifts in trade between Russia and China. By the end of 2023, trade turnover had increased by 26 percent to a record $240 billion. However, in April 2024, China’s customs authority reported a 15 percent reduction in deliveries of cars, equipment, and other machinery. Bloomberg noted that exports to Russia fell for the first time in two years, linking this to sanctions risks. Chinese exports to Russia also fell in May, and Russian customs confirmed the continued decline of imports from Asia. Russia’s Central Bank acknowledged that it had become generally more difficult for Russian banks to open correspondent accounts abroad, even in “friendly” currencies, and directly linked this to “sanctions the United States adopted in December 2023.”

The issue was also discussed at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Industry players reported that money transfers from Russia to China could take as long as three months, and even then might end up being returned to the sender. Businesses complained that they couldn’t even pay for theater decorations or children’s displays. Pavel Brun, the head of MasterProf, said his company hasn’t been able to arrange the supply of plumbing fixtures. “It’s like walking through a minefield,” he told Business FM.

Finding a workaround

Some hopes were pinned on Vladimir Putin’s mid-May visit to China. However, although Putin mentioned that the payment issue was discussed, he didn’t provide any specifics, and business owners confirmed that the difficulties in making payments persisted even after the delegation returned to Moscow.

A source in the trade industry told Reuters that the typical way Russian businessmen solve this problem is by going “from bank to bank, opening current accounts.” “If their payment doesn’t go through, they go to the next one,” the source explained. In response, Chinese financial institutions have started imposing additional requirements, such as asking for an office lease agreement in the province where the bank is located. “While this would have seemed like a harsh requirement before, we have no choice now,” business owners commented to Kommersant FM.

One of the most promising options was to open an account at the Chinese branch of the Russian bank VTB. The demand for this was so high that businesses were often left waiting as long as a year to open an account. VTB Bank CEO Andrey Kostin promised to more than double the staff to speed up this service. However, in its broadened interpretation of Russia’s military-industrial complex, the U.S. Treasury directly named VTB as one of the banned entities for transactions. This will likely complicate the bank’s operations.

As an alternative, businesses have started using banks in third countries as intermediaries, sending money through companies in Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the U.A.E., and other “friendly” jurisdictions, rather than directly from Russia, according to Reuters sources. This scheme can prove costly: intermediaries may charge a commission of several thousand dollars per transaction, they don’t guarantee success, and the sender will have trouble getting the money back if the payment fails. Goods may also be confiscated in the intermediary countries. Nevertheless, half of the payments are currently processed this way.

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9 cards

Some companies have started using cryptocurrency to make payments to China, specifically the stablecoin Tether, which is pegged to the U.S. dollar, reports Bloomberg. Instead of waiting months, payments are processed in 5-15 seconds, and without the hefty commissions intermediaries charge. However, there are risks for Chinese partners: since 2021, the local regulator has deemed all cryptocurrency transactions illegal. To circumvent these issues, an even more unorthodox solution has been devised: Russian steel companies are now bartering metal for any goods that Chinese businesses are willing to offer. This way, no cross-border financial transactions are needed at all. Both Russian customs and the Industry and Trade Ministry have noted the growing popularity of this bartering system.

If businesses still need to make monetary payments, they often turn to small rural banks in northeastern China. According to Reuters, these banks, located along the Russian border, are willing to accept transfers and have less stringent compliance requirements. However, due to high demand, even these banks have waiting lists to open an account that stretch for several months.

The System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS) — Russia’s SWIFT analogue for domestic and international transactions — could potentially help. However, VTB has complained that too few foreign companies are currently connected to it. Additionally, the system was developed by the Central Bank, which deters non-residents from using it due to sanctions risks. And with good reason: Bloomberg pointed out that the E.U. and the G7 could jointly impose sanctions for connecting to the system.

Ripple effects

Paradoxically, the current payment issues are having a positive impact on the Russian economy. The inability to transfer money has hit imports, thereby reducing the demand for foreign currency. This supports the ruble exchange rate, as noted in the Central Bank in official reports. The bank doesn’t believe this factor will have a significant impact on GDP.

However, as Sofia Donets, the chief economist at Tinkoff Investments, told RBC, these problems will ultimately lead to additional costs for sellers. The Moscow-based investment company Tsifra Broker concurs that prices for many goods could rise if timely shipments can’t be ensured. Categories making up the largest share of Chinese exports to Russia are at risk: equipment, land transport vehicles, electrical machinery, and electrical equipment.

Currently, importers are complaining that fraudsters are trying to exploit the situation: they write to Russian entrepreneurs posing as Chinese partners and notify them of a change in banking details. There’s been at least one known case where a business ended up sending money to an account, only to find that they couldn’t reach the sender afterward and were left without the paid-for goods.

Some market participants believe that resolving the payment crisis will depend on how much banks can earn from conducting such operations. For instance, Anatoly Semenov, director of the Parallel Import Association, points out that so long as the markets of countries unfriendly to Russia are of interest to Chinese businesses, they won’t openly violate the sanctions regime and risk their investments. Banks in Turkey and the U.A.E. are also refusing transactions with Russia. Against this backdrop, The Bell estimates that imports from some countries have dropped by a third this year.

turning to economists

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turning to economists

Political scientist Steffen Kailitz explains the risks and rewards of Vladimir Putin’s growing reliance on economic technocrats

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