SWIFT and the long run

The Economist wrote in November 2014 considering the proposal that Russian banks be disconnected from the SWIFT payment system:

Now there are calls for Russian banks to be banned from SWIFT in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A group of American senators is arguing for the measure…

The impact of a reprise on Russia’s already fragile economy would be huge. Its banks are more connected to international trade and capital markets than Iran’s were. They are heavy users not only of SWIFT itself but also of other payment systems to which it connects them, such as America’s Fedwire and the European Central Bank’s Target2.

Russian officials and senior bankers equated the possible SWIFT ban with a “declaration of war.” Bluffing, most likely, but Obama’s administration never took the risks needed to call that bluff. Perhaps it reasoned like The Economist:

Another risk is that using SWIFT in this way could lead to the creation of a rival. Russia’s central bank is pre-emptively working to develop an alternative network… If China and other countries that feared being subjected to future Western sanctions joined the Russian venture, it might become an alternative to SWIFT—and one less concerned with preventing money laundering and the financing of terrorism.

It only took a suspicion that the SWIFT ban might be a credible threat for Russia to start working on an alternative. It must be in an advanced stage now. What The Economist termed a risk was an inevitability. Washington’s dilemma was “either we cut them off now, or we don’t – ever.”

I’m sure that Trump’s administration would have been tempted by the former option. Obama, in contrast, was content with finding Russia on the wrong side of history and imposing sanctions of a longer-term nature. History could still prove him right, but there’s one little problem with the long run.

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