Under Crush of Sanctions, Cryptocurrency Trading Surges in Russia

As US and European sanctions on Russian oligarchs subside – the country’s top billionaires have lost $80 billion in recent days – growing fears that the elite This will try to bypass sanctions by flocking to crypto to fly under the radar.

Experts warn that there are many ways that panicking tycoons can take advantage of cryptocurrency trading to shuffle their funds to hide their vast wealth.

Ari Redbord, a former senior adviser at the Ministry of Finance, told The Daily Beast: “Individuals sanctioned by Russia may try to use crypto to convert rubles into crypto, eventually transferring crypto. convert to other currencies and use them.

It’s not just Russian oligarchs who can turn to crypto like a haven.

According to crypto data analytics firm Chainalysis shared with The Daily Beast, signs are growing that Russians regularly turn to crypto companies to help them as they witness His wealth dwindled due to the collapse of the ruble.

“Since the invasion happened, the trading volume for trading pairs involving the Russian ruble has increased, with two spikes on February 24 and February 28,” said the head. Chainalysis’s public policy in North America, Salman Banaei, told The Daily Beast.

Analysis from crypto analytics company Kaiko found similar gain.

An official with knowledge of the campaign to seize the assets of the punished tycoons told The Daily Beast that wealthy Russians have been observed meeting in bars, restaurants and clubs. Walk with longtime financiers in Europe’s economic capitals — potentially figuring out their options for how to rescue their fortunes from Russia’s faltering economy.

“Frankfurt, Geneva, London,” the official said, speaking in light of the sensitivity of the lingering sanctions efforts. “Wherever a G&T costs $30, a Russian is weighing his financing options.”

Fears that cryptocurrencies could offer Russian oligarchs a way to escape tough US sanctions are rocking the halls of Congress. Thank you to Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Mark Warner (D-VA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Jack Reed (D-RI), who sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Wednesday loving asked the Treasury Department to explain exactly how it will monitor crypto companies to ensure they enforce economic sanctions on Russian oligarchs.

On the same day, the legislators sent the letter, Yellen said Treasury will track sanctions evasion. “We will continue to look at how sanctions work and assess whether there are leaks, and we have the ability to address them,” Yellen said in remarks at the University of Illinois Chicago. .

But officials are increasingly concerned that some oligarchs might get away with some crypto tricks anyway. The official with knowledge of the Russian oligarchs’ campaign to seize assets expressed deep frustration at the slow pace of Justice Department investigations in Europe and growing concern that billions of dollars in sanctions could disappear into Ethereum in that time. sent the government’s “KleptoCapture Task Force” to begin seizing assets.

The Interagency Task Force, First Announced by President Joe Biden in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, was given expanded powers to enforce sanctions and export restrictions aimed at the Kremlin’s billionaire allies.

“We’re joining our European allies to find and seize their yachts, luxury apartments, private jets,” Biden said to applause. “We came for your unwanted benefit.”

US Attorney General Merrick Garland preview the launch of the task force on Wednesday, stated that the KleptoCapture Task Force would “leave nothing untoward in its efforts to investigate, arrest, and prosecute those whose offenses allow the Russian government to continue its investigation.” this senseless war”.

Domestically, at least, the task force is in its infancy, with a flurry of hirings across the FBI, US Police Department, Secret Service, Internal Revenue Service, and US Postal Inspection Service. . A Justice Department source familiar with the task force said that the mood of their recruits was “damn suspense”, but admitted that the operation was huge – partly Red sparrowpart Repo Man—It will take a while to get in place.

The DOJ source said: “Forensic accounting is not something you can rush.

So far, at least, crypto exchanges like Binance, FTX, and Coinbase have said they will comply with US sanctions efforts. However, most of the prominent members in the industry are stopping short of implementation of full trading bansaccording to Financial Times.

Without the regulatory requirement, some crypto exchanges are hesitant to jump into the fray to completely freeze the Russians, according to Jesse Powell, CEO of cryptocurrency exchange Kraken.

“Cryptocurrency is “for peace, not war,” said Powell. “[I]If we are going to voluntarily freeze the financial accounts of residents of countries that unjustly attack and incite violence around the world, then step 1 will be to freeze all US accounts. In fact, that’s not really a viable business option for us.”

Mr. Powell warned that a freeze on Russians could be “imminent”.

All in all, compliance with sanctions is unquestionable for crypto exchanges — the Treasury Department last year took steps to clarify that sanctions compliance obligations also apply. for virtual currencies.

But there are a number of non-compliant organizations that the Russians may wish to attack, before it’s too late, Redbord said.

The Ukrainian government has also begun to raise red flags about the current sanctions packages, fearing that the Russians will withdraw all their funds if crypto exchanges do not step up and simply block Russians from trading altogether. . Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Mykhailo Fedorovwho is also the minister in charge of digital transformation, issued an appeal on Sunday to all crypto exchanges to ban Russian users from abusing their services.

Fedorov said: “I am asking all major crypto exchanges to block addresses of Russian users. “It is important to freeze not only addresses associated with Russian and Belarusian politicians, but also to sabotage ordinary users.”

It’s unclear if the Biden administration was aiming to pressure crypto exchanges to implement that kind of freeze. So far, the administration has only designated big banks and oligarchs in its sanctions packages, but a fuller national bloc has yet to come down.

The Treasury Department did not return a request for comment.

However, the Biden administration has not shied away after crypto exchanges caused trouble in recent months. The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued its first designation of a cryptocurrency exchange last year when it imposed sanctions on SUEX, a company owned by the US Treasury. Russia – for helping ransomware gangs with their payments. And while the sanction effort is focused on bringing down Russia’s ransomware gangs, the move sets the stage for broader enforcement measures against crypto exchanges if they unknowingly or knowingly, ignoring Biden’s management policies.

But after the exchange of cryptocurrencies is not an obvious problem. There is a growing concern that regular Russian citizens, who have seen the value of their money deplete when their president invades Ukraine, will also feel the effects of the war, even if There is evidence that many Russians do not support Putin’s invasion.

And they could feel the burn if crypto institutions step up their crackdown on the use of crypto exchanges by Russians.

“This is not a war of the Russian people. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Russian people oppose it,” Secretary of State Tony Blinken said in a speech Wednesday. “So my message to the Russian people… is that we know many of you do not want to participate in this war… The economic costs that we are forced to impose on Russia are not aimed at You guys — they aim to convince your government to stop its actions, to stop its aggression. “

Even so, the scale of Russia’s damage in recent days cannot be solved with cryptocurrency alone, warned Redbord, who has advised both Deputy Secretary and Undersecretary on Terrorism and Intelligence. finance at the Ministry of Finance.

“It’s just that there isn’t enough liquidity in the entire crypto market to support what they’re losing here in terms of sanctions — we’re talking hundreds of billions or more and all the capital. Bitcoin’s market capitalization… not achieving what they’re going to lose here,” Redbord told The Daily Beast.

For now, however, the authorities are on high alert. European authorities will be watching to see if financiers try to impose sanctions using cryptocurrencies, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said. speak at a press release on Tuesday.

“We are taking measures, especially for cryptocurrencies or crypto assets, that should not be used to circumvent financial sanctions,” Le Maire said. “We will be checking daily on the implementation of these sanctions, their effectiveness and any additional measures that may be needed. When it comes to economic and financial sanctions, we want to remain flexible and maneuver.”

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