Russia stokes fears of first foreign currency default in more than a century

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Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said Wednesday it is up to the U.S. to decide whether crucial interest payments on two dollar-denominated eurobonds go through, ratcheting up fears of Moscow’s first foreign currency debt default in over a century.

“The possibility or impossibility of fulfilling our obligations in foreign currency does not depend on us, we have the money, we paid the payment, now the ball is on the side, first of all, of the American authorities,” Siluanov said in an interview with RT Arabic, according to Russian news agency RIA.

“The Russian Federation has the necessary money in foreign currency accounts, it is possible to pay in ruble settlements.”

A view of the Moscow Kremlin and St Basil’s Cathedral.

Mikhail Japaridze | TASS | Getty Images

Siluanov claimed Russia had the necessary funds to fulfill its obligations and pay $117 million in interest on two sovereign eurobonds due on Wednesday. However, he said the U.S. should first clarify whether the settlements are possible from Russian foreign currency accounts.

CNBC has contacted the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which administers sanctions, for comment. It was not immediately available to respond.

The U.S. and international allies have imposed an unprecedented barrage of punitive economic sanctions against Russia in response to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. The penalties have sought to cut off Moscow from the global financial system.

One key measure of the sanctions was to effectively freeze the Central Bank of Russia’s roughly $630 billion foreign reserve stockpile.

Economists had been unsure as to how Russia’s Ministry of Finance would approach the payment in light of sanctions on the Central Bank of Russia that rendered much of its foreign exchange reserves inaccessible, prompting a sweep of credit downgrades from the major global ratings agencies.

It is thought Russia could attempt to deliver payment in rubles if a settlement in dollars is rejected.

Credit ratings agency Fitch has warned, however, that payment to bondholders in a currency other than dollars would constitute a default.

One bondholder who requested anonymity told Reuters there had not yet been confirmation of Russia’s payment, and it remained unclear whether it would come.

Corporate world shuns Russia

The prospect of non-payment would kickstart a 30-day grace period before Russia falls into technical default, but the Kremlin will likely contend that Western sanctions prevented it from completing the payment.

If confirmed following the grace period, the non-payment would mark Russia’s first sovereign default since 1998, when it defaulted on domestic debt, and the first sovereign default on foreign currency debt since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918.

Russian assets are increasingly viewed as toxic by some market participants as the Kremlin continues its onslaught of Ukraine.

Hundreds of the world’s largest companies have decided their presence in Russia is no longer feasible since the Kremlin attacked on Feb. 24.

Russia’s Siluanov indicated on Monday that Russia would use its reserves of Chinese yuan to make some of its payments, with euros and dollars now inaccessible due to sanctions, and also suggested that creditors from “hostile” countries may be paid in rubles.

—CNBC’s Elliot Smith contributed to this article.

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