London: In the face of sanctions that have frozen international lending to Russia, a small group of European banks are trying to refinance existing loans to big companies there in order to protect their business.
They have their work cut out. Washington and Brussels have excluded Russia's state banks and top energy firms from capital markets as punishment for the country's support for separatist rebels in Ukraine and their action — unprecedented in the post-Cold war era — means even companies not on the blacklist will struggle to raise large loans outside their domestic market.
Nonetheless, banks such as Raffeisen and Unicredit are attempting to refinance existing debt to preserve their relations with clients and with that, their sizeable business in the country.
Bank Austria, the central and eastern Europe (CEE) arm of Italian bank UniCredit, said this week it expects to keep making solid profits in Russia.
"It is a compliance complexity for sure, a very significant effort, but I think it is our approach and culture that any requirement from the sanctions we respect to the extreme detail," said Chief Financial Officer Francesco Giordano.
Bankers working on a syndicated loan of up to $900 million for Russian steel company Evraz - led by Dutch bank ING and Germany's Deutsche Bank — say they hope it will be signed as soon as this week, though they will have jumped through many hoops to get it over the line.
"I think the deal will get done, but it is more difficult at the moment. People are asking a lot of questions around the new sanctions," one banker told Thomson Reuters Loan Pricing Corp (LPC).
The loan, a refinancing for Evraz's export business, was first launched in May, after economic sanctions were initially imposed on Russia, but before last month's escalation of the prohibitions.
Deutsche and ING declined to comment. Evraz did not respond to requests for comment.
British, US and Japanese banks do not want the legal hassle of getting involved in syndicated loans for companies in Russia: The economic warfare between Russia and the west has created a bureaucratic nightmare, forcing banks to scrutinise every single payment made through their Russian subsidiaries to ensure they are in compliance.
Nonetheless some European bankers are persevering, trying to convince their banks' credit committees to give them the green light for loans to help their customers refinance their debts.