Businesses fear ripple effects from "cosmetic" Russian sanctions

PARIS/MOSCOW, March 21 Fri Mar 21, 2014 9:21am EDT

PARIS/MOSCOW, March 21 (Reuters) - U.S. and European sanctions against Russia are already having a ripple effect beyond their immediate targets, with Visa and MasterCard halting payment transaction services for clients of a bank not even on the blacklist.

SMP bank's co-owners are two of the 20 Russians targeted by U.S. President Barack Obama as he tries to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for annexing Crimea.

The lender described the move by Visa and MasterCard as unlawful. However, financial services firms are wary of doing business with any person or group that can be linked back to Obama's blacklist.

Banks have paid dearly in the past for violating U.S. sanctions on countries such as Iran, and the threat of broader measures against the Russian economy should Putin threaten southern and eastern Ukraine reinforces their caution.

The U.S. sanctions forced Russian billionaire Gennady Timchenko to sell his nearly 50 percent stake in Gunvor, the world's fourth-largest oil trader, this week but their direct effect has generally been relatively minor so far.

What bankers and business people fear is an escalation of measures that would choke off international payments and trade, halt investments and stymie deals. Germany's main trade body warned on Friday that full-blown economic sanctions would be a "real catastrophe".

In a worst-case scenario, Washington would stop banks doing business with Russian counterparts and corporates, similar to the sort of sanctions that were imposed on Iran.

Germany's "wise men" council of economic advisers said this week that the Ukraine crisis was the biggest threat to growth globally, and especially in Germany, because of Russia's importance of an energy exporter.

"What has been announced so far is really nothing. It's purely cosmetic," said a French banker based in Moscow.

"The biggest risk is tougher sanctions and really the potential impossibility of transfers in U.S. dollars. That will hit trade finance, which depends on correspondent accounts in dollars," said the banker, who declined to be named because of official sensitivity around the restrictions.

"Being able to make payments in dollars is crucial for the Russian economy, which is dependent on energy exports. It would really hurt us domestically."

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Bank exposure to Russia link.reuters.com/xej67v

Russia's main trade partners link.reuters.com/jup77v

Russia's EU trade ties link.reuters.com/rup77v

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State-owned Russian banks and companies are expected to repatriate funds from overseas after Putin told them this week to bring their assets home. But foreign bankers in Russia said things would have to deteriorate further before they would reconsider their investments there.

"It would have to be a lot worse than this. We are waiting for the response from the Russian side. It's very difficult to predict," said another Western banker in Moscow. "I haven't heard of any Western companies pulling out of Russia. If a company is substantially invested here it will be difficult for them to consider getting out."

WAIT AND SEE

Even before the Crimean crisis blew up last month, international banks such as HSBC, Credit Suisse and Barclays had pulled out of dozens of markets because the risk of falling foul of financial crime rules and sanctions outweighed the returns.

The cost to banks of cleaning up an array of misdeeds that have come to light since the global financial crisis, including sanctions busting, has soared to over $100 billion.

With that figure expected to climb, Western banks have so far steered clear of attempts by Iran to get them involved in financing humanitarian transactions, despite a diplomatic thaw.

With the U.S. and European sanctions so far focused on wealthy individuals close to Putin, private banks which cater to powerful Russians are under the spotlight.

Switzerland, the centre of international private banking and a bolt-hole for wealthy Russians, has yet to impose any sanctions but its banks, such as UBS and Credit Suisse, still have to be aware of sanctions when they deal with clients.

Beyond banking, big companies such as AstraZeneca have said they are monitoring the situation in Russia, while doubts are growing over whether smaller firms with less financial flexibility should push ahead with investments in Russia such as building factories.

"They are in a wait-and-see mode. But again the timing could be waiting three to six months rather than scrapping the whole thing," said a second French banker working in Moscow.

Vasili Brokvo, the head of communications for Russia's state defence conglomerate Rostec, made the corporate case for peace.

"We hope and our international partners also hope that political differences over certain issues won't annul or destroy everything we've built and all previous agreements with foreign partners will be successfully implemented," he said on a business trip to Chile this week. (Additional reporting by Katharina Bart in Zurich, Ben Hirschler in London and Alexandra Ulmer in Santiago. Writing by Carmel Crimmins; editing by David Stamp)

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