Following The Money To A Network Of OTC Providers
Sanctions can only work if those who are supposed to enforce them understand exactly what to do so that they cannot be circumvented easily. Russia’s extensive network of Over-The-Counter (OTC) providers requires an extensive review by sanction committees, as they might be adopted to circumvent sanctions.
As described in the previous release, due to the limited liquidity of cryptocurrencies and Decentralized Finance space in general, it remains close to impossible for Russia to circumvent SWIFT-based systems by using crypto. However, Russians might still hold up to $200 Billion USD in crypto assets, besides running the third-largest crypto mining industry in the world. These funds can potentially be cashed out with Russian OTC providers.
The fifth EU sanction package on Russia limits the crypto asset holdings of Russian nationals, individuals, and legal entities established in Russia to €10,000 (with the same account, wallet or custody provider). The use of Russian OTC providers, which represents a network of physical providers offering cash payouts from crypto, could be adopted to circumvent these sanctions.
In oversimplified terms, OTC refers to a process in which individuals theoretically could agree on a price and meet to complete a transaction. An example of such a process could be a personal meeting in which one side brings bags with cash or any other pre-agreed means of value, and the other side could conduct a transaction on the blockchain on the spot. Transactions primarily with larger sums of money could be risky, to say the least. Contrarily to peer-to-peer exchanges (P2P) which involve independent parties, OTC exchanges act comparable to physical pawn shops. At dedicated physical locations with announced opening hours, individuals can visit and exchange their cryptocurrencies in Russia for cash or bank transfers.
Depending on the business models of virtual assets service providers (VASPs), both OTC and P2P providers have existed in various jurisdictions since the beginning of financial interactions between individuals. An example of such a platform in the EU is LocalBitcoin, registered with the Finnish Financial Supervisory Authority. Unlike Russian OTC providers which are subject to the 6th Anti Money Laundering Directive of the EU and connected to its so-called Counter-Terrorism Financing (CTF) legislation, LocalBitcoin is a unique case.
Existence of such a platform in the EU is only possible in Finland, as the rest of the EU has followed the recommendation of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to define and include Digital Assets in the national legislation and created an oversight program as a regulator. It can be argued that the current regulatory frameworks remain far from perfect, but there is increased interest in incorporating DeFi into traditional financial compliance programs.
Such requirements to register a P2P or OTC exchange are way different within the Russian Federation. On the one hand, Russia approved use of cryptocurrency as an investment tool or a payment method as of Q1 2021 but on the other its national bank proposed a long list of bans that should outlaw the circulation of cryptocurrencies within the country.
Due to such unclear legal circumstances, licensing and supervisory programs are close to non-existent. In the absence of platforms that have chosen ‘compliance excellence’ as their differentiating business strategy, for example, Coinbase or some Scandinavian VASPs, many Russian providers have to operate in the gray space to say the least.
What is surprising is the fact that even though Russians store up to one fifth of the national bank’s reserves in digital assets, the public side has decided to not provide much clarity for the VASPs or any other players in Decentralized Finance (DeFi).
By not providing clarity for players in the Digital Assets space, the governments in Moscow and Minsk continue to lose on potential tax revenues and regulatory oversight of over 623 crypto platforms identified so far, associated with Russia and Belarus. The logic to continue to lose out on easily taxable capital gain from crypto investments remains questionable.
“Is it not paradoxical that despite the Russian Prime Minister stating that Russians hold $200 Billion USD in crypto, Russia has not yet formulated a comprehensive legislation to legalize crypto or set a taxation process for it?” — Dominika Kuberska, PhD, Faculty of Economic Sciences, University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn.
With the absence of regulated players in Russia, there is a well-developed gray market of OTC exchanges that facilitate the trade of Digital Assets in exchange for rubles using both cash and bank transfers. Sources, who desire to remain anonymous, underline that bank transfers to individuals or entities from OTC brokers are labeled as payments for IT or consultancy services. The Russian government will officially tax profits from such transfers with personal or corporate income tax (PIT, CIT).
Moreover, for customers that desire to purchase or exchange a significant amount of digital assets, there are at least ten physical brokers in Moscow or even price comparison websites like BestChange.ru that display the current rates of OTC providers in various regions. Due to the nature of the business model, customers can often exchange cash for digital assets at the physical offices of these exchanges which can be visited by both individuals and the members of the Russian financial supervisory authorities, in case they would acknowledge their existence. The majority of OTC providers operate without identifying their customers. Multiple sources report on direct cooperation between dedicated Ponzi schemes or sanctioned brokers with OTC providers. Even if hard evidence such as an agreement or email exchange between confirmed parties is continuously being collected, blockchain based analytics continues to provide indications for illicit transactions.
Russia has been connected with an elevated amount of illicit activities for a country that has a population of 144 million, which is 1.5 times bigger than that of Germany.
“Russia has surprisingly large amounts of confirmed illicit “Unicorns” like BTC-e/WEX exchange, Hydra dark web marketplace, dozens of pyramid schemes like PRIZM, the largest ransomware attacks and other cybercrimes which experts consider to be possibly parts of state-sponsored -activities” – Oleksi Fisun, Co-founder of Global Ledger Protocol.
With so many confirmed illicit activities coming out of one jurisdiction, it remains worth investigating how profits from illegal activities could be potentially cashed out. As described extensively in the previous article, the advantage of a public blockchain is that it remains visible and traceable.
An example of such confirmed illicit activity that could be cashed out with a Russian OTC provider, would be funds allocated in a cryptocurrency wallet provider called Konvert.im. It includes more than 100 transactions and has more than 69% exposure to funds originating from newly sanctioned Hydra Darknet Marketplace.
The representation on the graphic above displays transactions originating from the already sanctioned Hydra cluster (represented by – red dots) that are conducted through intermediate wallets 1Kzqyn1uCntTY1BZE3wQ4kA8JdQbS2sJPh and 13eTeNNrSyPcBh4HGxJcEPP
As Konvert.im represents an exchange, most certainly, their compliance must be aware of the origination of those funds from sanctioned Hydra. It is within such schemes the funds might be mixed with other funds that could potentially be forwarded to OTC providers for cash out.
Regardless of the choice of the provider used for Blockchain based analytics, due to the nature of Blockchain based investigations that accumulate all of the funds and its traces on the Blockchain between different brokers, there will always be a certain exposure to illicit traffic, which most likely will be at a single digit percentage wise. Similar to accepting a physical banknote at the local farmer’s market, there could be a possibility that this banknote was used to conduct illicit activity in the past. This connection to illicit activity remains invisible on the banknote itself, but such a transaction is perfectly visible on the Blockchain.
Having said that, it remains impossible to state that an exposure of 69% to Hydra has been a technical mistake. It should rather be perceived as a dedicated action and tracing the money from Konvert.im to a Russian OTC provider might serve as a symbol that this strategy can and might be adopted to circumvent SWIFT-based sanctions and easily bypass a limitation specified in the fifth EU sanction package.