Bitcoin has leapt since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, bolstered by people in those countries looking to store and move money in anonymous and decentralised crypto.
Bitcoin trading denominated in the Russian rouble went into overdrive when the invasion began on Thursday, with daily volumes rising 259% from a day earlier to 1.3 billion roubles (US$13.1-million), according to data from CryptoCompare.
In Ukraine, meanwhile, crypto exchange Kuna saw its daily trading volume more than treble to 150 million hryvnias ($5-million).
Bea O’Carroll, MD at Radkl, a digital asset investment firm, said the war and Western sanctions had seen a trend emerge of bitcoin being used to transfer value
“Basically, having a currency that is not controlled by the government, that is not affected by the emergency acts … is really interesting,” she added. “Maybe this is how Russia gets its value moved around. Equally, on the other side, there was ‘this is how people are going to get value to the Ukrainians’.”
In the five days since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, bitcoin has risen 13%, while the S&P 500 US stock index that it often mimics is up around 2% and traditional safety play gold is now largely flat after gaining as much as 3.5% on the day of the invasion.
On the day of the attack, about $300-million short bitcoin positions were liquidated, Coinglass data showed, while Singapore-based QCP Capital said “a good portion” of leveraged long positions had been taken out.
As well as being largely anonymous, crypto holdings and transactions are often held in wallets on decentralised platforms that can be accessed from anywhere.
“Bitcoin could be a potential safe haven for Russian oligarchs avoiding sanctions as there will be no censor on the bitcoin network and on cryptocurrency transactions,” said Ipek Ozkardeskaya, senior analyst at Swissquote Bank.
“Cryptocurrencies could act as a powerful store of value for a major part of holdings that don’t need to be liquid.”
Yet for crypto fans, the fact that such holdings could offer a route around sanctions could be a double-edged sword. “It could lead to regulations from NATO countries against usage of crypto, but the flip side is that there could be broader adoption in places with geopolitical turmoil,” said Katie Talati, head of research at digital asset manager Arca.
Ukraine was also quick to spot an opportunity in the crypto world’s reach and anonymity. Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted the wallet addresses of bitcoin and ether, alongside an appeal: “Stand with the people of Ukraine. Now accepting cryptocurrency donations.”
Fedorov’s government and Ukrainian non-governmental organisations raised over $22-million in cryptocurrencies after the appeals, according to blockchain analysis company Elliptic.
While bitcoin may be emerging as a currency of choice in areas of geopolitical risk, however, market players caution there are differing views over whether it can more broadly become a “safe haven” asset, a form of digital gold.
For Zach Friedman, co-founder of crypto brokerage Secure Digital Markets, bitcoin’s post-invasion gains serve to enforce the “narrative around bitcoin’s store of value during turbulent times”.
Elsewhere, money is flowing into “stablecoins”, which are pegged to traditional assets such as the US dollar.
As of Friday, stablecoin transactions comprised over 83% of the total crypto market’s 24-hour trading volume according to CoinMarketCap.
USD tether, the largest stablecoin, saw its market capitalisation climb to an all-time high of nearly $80-billion, while gold-backed cryptocurrency PAX gold added nearly $100-million to its market cap in two days.