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Banks are key to making sanctions work

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Illustration: Peter Crowther

The financial frontline of Russia’s war in Ukraine runs through the offices of overworked sanctions officers at banks everywhere. It is their job to freeze the accounts and assets of sanctioned oligarchs. The pressure is colossal: get it wrong or act too slow, and the impact on a bank’s brand and bottom line will be felt for years to come.


Life, for a growing number of risk and compliance experts at the world’s banks, changed irrevocably on February 24, when Russia's president Vladimir Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine.

Overnight, they went from being important but auxiliary functionaries to key decision makers, helping their firms make informed decisions about who they do business with in the face of sanctions lists targeting Russian and Belarusian persons and institutions.

For those at the coalface, it is a shock.

“Drinking from a firehose – that is what it is like being a chief sanctions officer at a bank at the moment,” says Ross Denton, head of international trade at Ashurst, a London-based international law firm.

Time-challenged sanctions chiefs have little inclination to speak publicly, but those willing to talk off the record describe an unceasing drumbeat of meetings with internal executives and external clients and regulators, interspersed with brief moments when they eat, sleep and self-educate.

“I


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Global Private Banking and Wealth Management editor
Elliot Wilson is Greater China editor and Private Banking and Wealth Management editor. He joined the magazine in 2020 having been a regular contributor focusing on China and the Indian subcontinent, Russia and Eastern Europe/the CIS. He is based in Hong Kong.