Crypto exchanges Huobi and KuCoin, both based in Seychelles, failed to take steps to prevent sanctioned Russian banks from using their platforms, according to a report from the blockchain analytics firm Inca Digital provided to POLITICO. Both exchanges still allow traders to transact with debit cards issued by sanctioned Russian banks, including Sberbank, on their peer-to-peer platforms, according to the report, which will be published later today.
While neither exchange actually accepts funds from blacklisted banks, letting crypto buyers trade with each other using accounts with sanctioned institutions represents a “direct violation of U.S. and European sanctions with a little bit of a loophole,” Inca CEO Adam Zarazinski said in an interview.
Huobi and KuCoin did not respond to requests for comment.
One year after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a conflict that has since killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides and forced millions of Ukrainians from their homes, the news reveals the continued limits of Washington’s attempts to cordon off Russian institutions and oligarchs from the broader financial system.
“Despite the bogus claims from crypto lobbyists, this is further evidence of crypto being the currency of choice for illicit finance, including by Russians looking to evade sanctions,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said in a statement
Policymakers like Warren have warned for the better part of a year that crypto markets represent a gaping vulnerability in the U.S.’ sanctions on Russia. While Treasury officials say they’ve seen little evidence that digital assets can be used to duck sanctions at scale, the U.S. has cracked down on services — including Russian exchanges and so-called mixing services that make transactions more difficult to track — in an attempt to shut off the spigot.
Inca, which has contracts with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, prepared the report on the anniversary of the Russian invasion to spotlight how certain exchanges still allow Russians to move their holdings in and out of the country using peer-to-peer platforms despite escalating sanctions. The report identifies potential vulnerabilities on two other major exchanges, most notably Binance — the world’s largest crypto trading platform and a frequent target of regulators across the globe.
Binance offers “multiple methods” for Russians to convert local currencies into crypto, including through its exchange and a peer-to-peer market, according to the report. While the platform doesn’t allow users to use Russian credit cards, debit cards or accounts from sanctioned banks on its exchange, those deposits are accessible through its peer-to-peer market, according to the report.
Binance called the report’s allegations “categorically false” in a statement.
“Binance is a full-KYC [know your customer] platform and was the first major exchange to implement EU crypto-related sanctions,” said Binance’s global head of sanctions, Chagri Poyraz. He said the company “takes the extraordinary additional step of filtering any forms of communication between users to ensure there is absolutely no potential nexus with Russian entities through any sort of workaround.”
The exchange has engaged in a major lobbying and public relations push in recent weeks in an attempt to head off state and federal agencies’ ongoing push to rein in lightly regulated crypto businesses.
Binance has previously said that it would like to settle any allegations that might be brought by the Justice Department or civil regulators. Patrick Hillmann, the exchange’s chief strategy officer, has acknowledged that Binance failed to fully verify the identity of its customers — a basic requirement for any financial company — during its first two years of operation. He said Binance has no timeline for reaching an agreement with regulators.
Meanwhile, the Singapore-based exchange ByBit allows users to convert Russian rubles into crypto using their peer-to-peer market and fiat deposit, according to the report. Russians may also purchase crypto on the exchange after depositing fiat currency via an online digital wallet or a local bank card — including “any Russian-issued card.”
“Many of these exchanges officially curtailed their operations in Russia due to the imposed sanctions. They claimed to block users from Russia and to prevent them from opening new accounts,” the report states. Instead, they’ve continued to work with Russian citizens, including allowing them to use the maximum deposit, trading, and withdrawal limits, the report said.
BitBy did not respond to a request for comment.
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