Russia Prepares For Split With International Banking System

Russia has an alternative already in place in case it is cut from SWIFT — and short-term setbacks would likely be followed by long-term gains

Fri, Mar 24, 2017 | 21733 Comments
Although Russia's alternative system to SWIFT isn't fully functional, Russia would likely come out on top in the long-term
Although Russia's alternative system to SWIFT isn't fully functional, Russia would likely come out on top in the long-term

Russia has successfully developed and implemented an alternative should it be excluded from international banking systems, according to a recent report

As far as western sanctions go, by far Russia's largest vulnerability is in its banking sector, which for better or for worse is tied to the hip with international banking.

If Russia wishes to maintain the status quo, there's not much that can be done about this dependency. But shortly after sanctions were announced in 2014, Moscow set out to prepare for the worst-case scenario: being cut off from the Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) system. 

In layman's terms, SWIFT allows for fast and (allegedly) secure international financial transfers. In fifty years when you are able to use your Bank of America debit card on the Moon (for a low fee of 2,000 moon rubles), it will be because of SWIFT or a system similar to it. 

There are two issues surrounding SWIFT "cut-off" for Russia: 1. Is it likely to happen? and 2. Is Russia prepared for it? 

Regarding the first question: The reality is that Washington's European poodles realize that cutting Russia from SWIFT would be a disaster. In 2015, European Central Bank policymaker Ewald Nowotny "warned against kicking Russian banks out of the SWIFT payments transfer system as part of tighter sanctions on Moscow."

According to Nowotny:

Such a move "we would see as very problematic because it could perhaps undermine confidence in this system," the governor of Austria's central bank told reporters in Brussels after meeting European Commissioner Pierre Moscovici.

Of course, this hasn't stopped Europe and Washington from threatening to pull the SWIFT plug.

We have a very low opinion of European and American geopolitical strategy; that being said, we have a hard time believing that Washington would seriously go forward with axing Russia's access to SWIFT. 

If it did though, things would certainly get interesting. Which leads us to our second question: Is Russia prepared? 

In the short-term: Definitely not. In the long-term it could be one of the best things to ever happen to Russia and all other nations that are tired of Washington's economic and military shenanigans. 

According to a recent report:

If the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) is shut down in Russia, the country’s banking system will not crash, according to Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina. Russia has a substitute.

"There were threats that we can be disconnected from SWIFT. We have finished working on our own payment system, and if something happens, all operations in SWIFT format will work inside the country. We have created an alternative," Nabiullina said at a meeting with President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.

She also added that 90 percent of ATMs in Russia are ready to accept the Mir payment system, a domestic version of Visa and MasterCard.

Izvestia daily reported that as of January 2016, 330 Russian banks had been connected to the SWIFT alternative, the system for transfer of financial messages (SPFS).

The alternative system is far from fully functional, however: "It doesn’t work from 9pm to 5am Moscow time and costs up to five cents per wire transfer, which is regarded expensive."

And using Crimea as an example (Western banks refuse to transfer foreign currency payments from Crimea via the SWIFT transaction system), there would be numerous headaches that would likely last a very long time. 

But as Naked Capitalism wrote back in November, 2014

[S]etting up a payments channel outside SWIFT can enable Russia to establish a financial system for those who don’t want to be subject to US dictates.

Banks that did business with Iran, both before and after the SWIFT sanctions, were hit with money-laundering sanctions. The payments were dollar payments and were cleared thought the banks’ New York branches, making them subject to US law.

All dollar transactions between banks are settled at the end of the business day in New York; interbank payment systems ultimately depend on a central bank backstop, and many large payments run over the Fed’s interbank system, Fedwire.

[...]

In addition, there are likely businesses in Europe that are not keen about how complying with the EU sanctions against Russia is hurting their business. It isn’t clear how many would be willing to walk on the wild side and defy sanctions, but processing transactions through a Russian-controlled payment system would be far less susceptible to detection than through SWIFT.

In other words, this measure is intended to reduce the effectiveness of using the dollar dominance in payments as a weapon. Whether the Russians can launch a robust enough system quickly is an open question, but this is a sensible defensive and potentially offensive measure. It may have longer-term ramifications if other countries that are not happy with the US decide to employ it for practical or political reasons.

For Washington, any short-term gains from cutting Russia off from SWIFT would almost certainly be followed by long-term economic and strategic benefits for Moscow.  

We know this because every attempt to "sanction" Russia has had a similar result.