Ukraine war: Russians wait in queues for cash as rouble plunges and hyperinflation looms

Ordinary Russians faced the prospect of higher prices and crimped foreign travel as Western sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine sent the rouble plummeting and people queuing for cash outside banks.

The Russian currency plunged about 30 per cent against the US dollar on 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, which more than doubled the key interest rate to support the rouble.

But later in the day, the US Treasury Department announced new sanctions that would immobilise 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” of Russian funding.

Biden administration officials said Germany, France, the UK, Italy, Japan, European Union and others will join the US in targeting the Russian central bank.

Run on Russian banks

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 on 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 in Moscow’s metro, buses and trams.

"It’s going to ripple through their economy really fast. Anything that is imported is going to see the local cost in currency surge"

David Feldman
Professor of Economics, William & Mary in Virginia

A sharp devaluation of the rouble would mean a drop in the standard of living for the average Russian. That’s because Russians are still reliant on a multitude of imported goods and the prices for those items are likely to skyrocket.

Foreign travel would also become more expensive as their roubles 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 due to lower demand.

“It’s going to ripple through their economy really fast,” said David Feldman, a professor of economics at 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 subsidisation”.

Spectre of hyperinflation

The Russian government would have to step in to support declining industries, banks, and economic sectors, but without access to hard currencies like the US dollar and euro, authorities may have to resort to printing more roubles, which economists say could quickly spiral into hyperinflation.

The rouble slide recalled previous crises for Russians. 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 rouble 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 Crimea peninsula.

Russia’s central bank immediately stepped in to try to halt the slide of the rouble on Monday. It sharply raised its key interest rate in a desperate attempt to shore up the currency and prevent a run on banks. It also said the Moscow stock exchange would remain closed Monday.

The bank hiked the benchmark rate to 20 per cent from 9.5 per cent. 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 (€569 billion) hard currency pile, some of which is held outside Russia, would be paralysed by the decision. European officials said that at least half of it will be affected. That dramatically raised pressure on the rouble by undermining financial authorities’ ability to support it by using reserves to purchase roubles.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the new sanctions that included a freeze on Russia’s hard currency reserves as “heavy,” but argued on Monday that “Russia has the necessary potential to compensate the damage”.

Rouble hits record low against US dollar

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 the government obligations to help ease the pressure on the rouble from panicky foreign investors trying to cash out of such investments.

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

The rouble sank about 30 per cent against the U.S. dollar early Monday but steadied after the central bank’s move. Earlier, it traded at a record low of 105.27 per dollar, down from about 84 per dollar late Friday, before recovering to 94.43.

Sanctions announced last week had taken the Russian currency to its lowest level against the dollar in history.

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