Crypto isn’t an escape route from sanctions

“Why doesn’t Russia just use Ripple if it can’t use SWIFT?” a young person asked me the other day. He is not alone in thinking that cryptocurrencies are a ‘workaround’ for Russia as it faces heavy economic sanctions. Indeed, with decentralization being a core value of crypto, it does seem that it should be a solution, but of course the reality is actually much, much different.

The reality is that crypto exchanges have far too much to lose if they allowed huge movements of crypto into the Russian Federation. Nobody wants to penalise the ordinary Russian person with crypto, and we have seen many of them protest about the Kremlin’s actions. Still, the authorities are on the look out for any infringements.

FinCEN sends a message to exchanges

For example, the United States Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, a bureau of the Treasury Department, has warned financial institutions to consider crypto as a possible means Russia may attempt to use to evade sanctions. They have sent out a warning to US-based financial institutions “with visibility into cryptocurrency” (eg Coinbase) to report any activity that could be considered a potential way for Russia to evade sanctions.

Biden to sign crypto executive order

President Biden is about to sign an executive order on cryptocurrencies this week, outlining his administration’s view of the sector, and it is thought this has been brought forward as a result of the invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainian minister of digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov has directly appealed to crypto exchanges on social media, urging them to block addresses of Russian users. Cointelegraph reports “many exchanges including Binance and Kraken have said that they will not unilaterally act to block ALL users in Russia from accessing their coins unless there were a legal requirement for them to do so.”

But the exchanges are taking action – because they must!

A view from the crypto exchanges

Changpeng Zhao, CEO of Binance, have taken to Twitter, to explain that since banks follow the sanctions rules, then so do cryptocurrency exchanges.

Brad Garlinghouse, CEO of Ripple, also slammed the allegations that Russia may use cryptocurrencies to get around economic sanctions. And he explains why it is wrong to think exchanges might be able to wriggle around the law. As he points out, worldwide crypto trading platforms rely on a variety of banking partners. These banks and crypto trading platforms would risk losing their licenses if a blocked country or individual breaks through all necessary security measures to conduct transactions on these platforms. That is why there are very stringent KYC and AML policies in place.

And Brian Armstrong of Coinbase has also weighed into the debate, saying that cryptocurrencies are not a way to evade sanctions, because “every United States firm must comply with the law; it makes no difference whether they engage in dollars, crypto gold, real estate, or any other type of non-financial asset.”

Ultimately, the reason Ripple or other cryptocurrencies won’t really help Russia is this; blockchains work on an open ledger, so any illegal transaction would be even more traceable than cash, gold or other assets.

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