A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry recently announced that Russia is preparing to be removed from SWIFT. His remarks came in response to a European Parliament resolution calling for Russia to cut ties with SWIFT if it continues to invade Ukraine. The question now is how feasible is this Russian move? What are its implications for SWIFT and international trade? What are the roots of this decision and how far can the countries involved in SWIFT go with the option of sanctioning and leaving SWIFT?
SWIFT stands for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, which has been formed with an aim of replacing the non-standard paper communication methods with a global standard approach. About 209 countries are member of SWIFT, and over 30 million messages are exchanged daily. Therefore, if a country wants to be out of the SWIFT system or cut off access to SWIFT, it means that it must be able to persuade its important trading partners in those 209 countries to trade outside the SWIFT system. In fact, another meaning of this statement is to encourage business partners to perform exchanges in traditional, informal and physical methods, the most important feature of which will be increase of exchange risk in currency exchange.
China, Germany, the Netherlands, Belarus and Italy are Russia’s most important trading partners. Russia’s foreign trade with China amounts to more than 110 billion dollars a year, about half of which is Russian imports from China and the other half is Russian exports to China. But Russia’s trade with Germany is about half of trade with China. Given the position of Germany, Italy and the Netherlands in the European Union, it seems that if Russia wants to withdraw SWIFT or cut off access to it, it will lose its three main trading partners, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy; that means more than 130 billion dollars in foreign trade, which is much more than the country’s trade with China. However, those figures also mean the losses of the three aforementioned countries in losing a market for export goods, and cast doubt on the permanence of the expulsion, or could pose a valid threat to Russia’s reconsideration of its relationship with Ukraine; this issue has made European countries very sensitive to this relationship since 2006 due to the interruption of Russian gas flow to Europe through Ukraine.
If Russia focuses only on China, China will face the same equations, except that China has extensive trade with the United States and its economic rivalry with the US is incompatible with its exit from the SWIFT mechanism. Therefore, this position of the Russian Foreign Ministry can be considered as a warning rather than news! Given the serious competition in the international arena, the withdrawal of a country from a large exchange mechanism such as SWIFT means a unique opportunity for competing economies to take its place, and a return to this position is not easy. While other countries may be thinking the same, the practical experience of the past few years in sending warnings by Russia and China that they would remove or replace SWIFT while not doing so shows that leaving the SWIFT mechanism is more of a reciprocal threat from Russia, and in the current context of the economic-financial exchange system, such a possibility does not exist; unless a country bears the cost of leaving the system.