What is the Swift banking system and will banning Russia from it help stop Ukraine invasion?

Would kicking Russia out of Swift stop Putin? Credit: AP

After much deliberation, Russia is finally being cut off from the Swift banking system in a move that could have a huge impact on the country's economy.

The US, the EU and the UK announced on Saturday "selected" banks will be hit with the sanctions.

Japan has joined the West in expelling Russia from the international financial messaging system.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan will also freeze assets of Putin and other Russian officials, alongside sending $100 million in emergency aid.

So, why are governments booting Russia out of Swift? What is Swift and how could it sanctions against Moscow hurt Russia's businesses?

What is Swift and who owns it?

Swift (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) is the world’s biggest international payments network - as of 2018, around half of all high-value cross-border payments worldwide used Swift. It was set up in Belgium in the early 1970s and, as a cooperative, is owned by its member financial institutions.

It is used by banks to make cross-border payments and is a vital tool for international trade.

The Swift network is linked to more than 11,000 financial institutions in over 200 countries and territories. Trillions of dollars' worth of deals are conducted via Swift every day. The Swift system averaged 42 million messages daily last year to enable payments - about half of all high-value payments that cross national borders go through its platform.

President Joe Biden has played down the need to block Russia from Swift. Credit: AP

How would Swift sanction against Russia work?

Kicking Russian banks out of Swift would would severely disrupt trade.

Without Swift, Russian transactions would have to go through individual banks, or through a less established system. This would make transactions significantly slower and could cause delays and hike up costs.

Why were some countries, including the US, reluctant to block Russia from Swift?

Several European leaders initially preferred to stay patient because a ban could make international trade more difficult and hurt their economies.

Joe Biden had also played down the need to block Russia from Swift, saying that while it’s “always” still an option, “right now that’s not the position that the rest of Europe wishes to take.”

He also suggested there were sanctions being put in place that would have a bigger impact.

“The sanctions we’ve imposed exceed Swift” Biden said in response to a question Thursday. “Let’s have a conversation in another month or so to see if they’re working.”

One expert in international trade said world leaders are reluctant to exclude Russia from the Swift system of financial transactions because it is the “nuclear option” of sanctions.

The Russian currency is expected to tumble and could soon be in a financial crisis, as Political Editor Robert Peston explains

“It’s a nuclear option that it’s going to basically exterminate yourself and your enemy,” Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy, told the BBC.

Germany, Italy, Hungary and Cyprus were among the countries blocking a Russia Swift ban. These countries use Swift to pay Russia for oil, gas, coal, nickel, titanium, gold and other commodities.

Would banning Russia from Swift have an impact?

While the UK is among those pushing for Russia to be booted out of Swift, others warn the move might not cut it off from the global economy as effectively as they hope - and could cause more problems.

While removing Russia from Swift would disrupt business, it would not cut them off entirely as they would still be able to use pre-Swift tools, including bank-to-bank transactions.

What are the risks of cutting Russia off from Swift?

There are fears it banning Russia from Swift would give incentive for others - for example, China, to develop alternatives - a move that would hurt economic growth, and make it harder to monitor the finances of terrorist groups.

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