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Russians line up at banks as ruble plunges, interest rates jump and sanctions bite

People standing in line at an ATM in Russia
People stand in line to withdraw money from an ATM in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday.
(Dmitri Lovetsky / Associated Press)
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Ordinary Russians faced the prospect of higher prices and crimped foreign travel as Western sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine sent the ruble plummeting, leading uneasy people to line up at banks and ATMs on Monday in a country that has seen more than one currency disaster in the post-Soviet era.

The Russian currency plunged about 30% against the U.S. dollar Monday after Western nations announced moves to block some Russian banks from the SWIFT international payment system and to restrict Russia’s use of its massive foreign currency reserves. The exchange rate later recovered ground after swift action by Russia’s central bank.

But hours later, the U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions that would immobilize any assets of the Russian central bank in the United States or held by Americans. The Biden administration estimated that the move could impact “hundreds of billions of dollars” in Russian funds.

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Biden administration officials said Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Japan, the European Union and others would join the U.S. in targeting the Russian central bank.

In Russia, people wary that sanctions would deal a crippling blow to the economy have been flocking to banks and ATMs for days, with reports in social media of long lines and machines running out.

Moscow’s department of public transport warned city residents over the weekend that they might experience problems with using Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay to pay fares because VTB, one of the Russian banks facing sanctions, handles card payments on Moscow’s metro, buses and trams.

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A sharp devaluation of the ruble would mean a drop in the standard of living for the average Russian, economists and analysts said. Russians are still reliant on a multitude of imported goods, and the prices for those items are likely to skyrocket. Foreign travel would become more expensive as their rubles buy less currency abroad. And the deeper economic turmoil will come in the coming weeks if price shocks and supply-chain issues cause Russian factories to shut down from lower demand.

“It’s going to ripple through their economy really fast,” said David Feldman, a professor of economics at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. “Anything that is imported is going to see the local cost in currency surge. The only way to stop it will be heavy subsidization.”

The Russian government will have to step in to support declining industries, banks and economic sectors, but without access to hard currencies like the U.S. dollar and euro, they may have to resort to printing more rubles. It’s a move that could quickly spiral into hyperinflation.

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The ruble slide recalled previous crises. The currency lost much of its value in the early 1990s after the end of the Soviet Union, with inflation and loss of value leading the government to lop three zeros off ruble notes in 1997. Then came a further drop after a 1998 financial crisis in which many depositors lost savings and yet another plunge in 2014 due to falling oil prices and sanctions imposed after Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

Russia’s central bank immediately stepped in to try to halt the slide of the ruble. It sharply raised its key interest rate Monday in an attempt to shore up the currency and prevent a run on banks.

The bank more than doubled the benchmark rate to 20% from 8.5%. That followed a Western decision Sunday to freeze Russia’s hard currency reserves, an unprecedented move that could have devastating consequences for the country’s financial stability.

It was unclear exactly what share of Russia’s estimated $640-billion hard currency pile, some of which is held outside Russia, would be paralyzed by the decision. European officials said that at least half of it would be affected.

That dramatically raised pressure on the ruble by undermining financial authorities’ ability to support it by using reserves to purchase rubles.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the new sanctions, including the freeze on Russia’s hard currency reserves, as “heavy,” but said Monday that “Russia has the necessary potential to compensate [for] the damage.”

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The central bank ordered other measures to help banks cope with the crisis by infusing more cash into the financial system and easing restrictions for banking operations. At the same time, it temporarily barred non-residents from selling Russian government bonds to help ease the pressure on the ruble from panicky foreign investors trying to cash out of such investments.

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The steps taken to support the ruble are themselves painful since raising interest rates can hold back growth by making it more expensive for companies to get credit.

The ruble sank about 30% against the U.S. dollar early Monday but steadied after the central bank’s move. It was trading at a record low 105.27 per dollar, a steep decline in value from about 84 per dollar late Friday.

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