New York (CNN Business)Russia says it has ordered the $117 million in interest payments it owes Wednesday to be sent to investors, attempting to avoid its first international default in more than a century. But it’s not out of the woods yet.
That’s because the funds the country used to make the debt payments came from Russia’s frozen foreign assets, sanctioned because of its attack on Ukraine — so it remains unclear whether investors will receive their money.
Anton Siluanov, Russia’s finance minister, told state media Russia Today that the country had made good on its obligations to creditors. But the “possibility or impossibility of fulfilling our obligations in foreign currency does not depend on us,” Siluanov said, according to RT, warning that the payment might not go through if the United States disallows it.
“We have the money, we made the payment, now the ball is in America’s court,” he said.
The two coupons Russia must pay on the maturing dollar-denominated eurobonds serve as the first test of Russia’s ability to pay its debts while the world heaves massive sanctions on its economy.
If the US blocks the payment, Russia could try to pay in rubles rather than dollars. But that action could constitute a default, Fitch Ratings said Tuesday.
It highlights the crunch Russia is in: The nation has the money to pay its debts. It just can’t access about half of those funds after the West placed unprecedented sanctions on its foreign reserves, totaling about $315 billion, according to Siluanov.
If the Russian government defaults, investors’ losses could start to mount.
Western investors are less exposed to Russia than they used to be. Sanctions following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 already encouraged them to reduce their exposure. But international banks are owed about $121 billion by Russian entities, according to the Bank for International Settlements.
JPMorgan estimates that Russia had about $40 billion of foreign currency debt at the end of last year, with about half of that held by foreign investors. So a default would be bad news for Russia, which will have to meet its obligations in its practically worthless currency, lacking access to foreign financing. But the global markets probably won’t get hurt too badly.
More payments are coming due soon. A much larger $2 billion payment scheduled for early April could create even bigger headaches for Moscow.
— CNN’s Lindsay Isaac and Julia Horowitz contributed to this report
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