The 3 leaders in the bankcard market, Visa, Mastercard and American Express, have decided to suspend their operations in Russia to mark their opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Several Russian banks have already announced that they are working on issuing cards from the Chinese UnionPay payment system.
"An uncertain economic environment" and "unacceptable events
Visa and Mastercard, the two American payment giants, were the first to announce, on Saturday March 5, their decision to suspend operations in Russia. The very next day, they were followed by American Express, which will also be halting its transactions in Belarus.
In their respective press releases, Mastercard and Visa explain the reasons for their choice. Mastercard mentions the " unprecedented nature of the current conflict " and " the uncertain economic environment ", while Visa says it is " compelled to act following Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the unacceptable events we have witnessed ".
As a result, Mastercard, Visa and American Express bank cards issued in Russia can no longer be used abroad from March 10, and those issued abroad will no longer work in Russia, whether online, in ATMs or in stores.
Russian banks turn to UnionPay and MIR
While the Russian market accounts for only a small share of Visa and Mastercard revenues - precisely 4% of their net income - bankcards issued by these two American giants accounted for 74% of payment transactions in Russia in 2020.
Russian banks reacted swiftly to these announcements, starting with the Russian Central Bank, which specified that Mastercard, Visa and American Express cards issued by Russian banks would continue to operate in the country until they expired, in which case transactions would be managed by the national bank card system.
Several Russian banks have also announced that they are already working on issuing bank cards from the Chinese UnionPay network to enable Russians to pay for purchases abroad. While the Russian MIR payment system allows Visa, Mastercard and American Express cardholders to continue using their cards within Russia's borders, it is only operational in a few foreign countries.
The Chinese network, meanwhile, enables transactions to be carried out in 180 countries around the world, hence the interest shown by Russian banks in issuing UnionPay bankcards. Sberbank, Russia's leading bank, as well as Alfa Bank, MKB, Raiffeisen, Rosbank and Tinkoff-Bank are currently working on implementing this solution.
While waiting for UnionPay bank cards to be introduced in Russia, the Russian central bank has advised residents traveling abroad to bring cash with them. It also reminded them that they could use their Russian MIR bank cards in Tajikistan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam, Belarus (in the case of Visa or Mastercard cards), as well as in the Russian-recognized separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.