Ukraine is going all in on becoming the world’s premier crypto superpower. Now the Russia crisis is scaring investors

January 31, 2022, 1:54 PM UTC

Ukraine has been positioning itself to be the main decentralized finance hub of not just Eastern Europe but the world as a whole. But now, just five months after the government legalized virtual financial assets and began the process of regulating them, conflict at the border has flared up, icing out the country’s ambitious crypto plans.

From the outside, Ukraine’s offering as a crypto hub is quite simple: with low taxes, light paperwork, and a surplus of highly talented engineers, a local tech economy would grow to attract foreign investment. But within Ukraine, it offers a lot more. The burgeoning tech economy would help the Eastern European country rebrand itself from a service economy, where Western companies often outsource back-end development, to a place where there is innovation and development independent from both the West and the East.

“The development of a new industry will allow attracting transparent investments and will strengthen the image of our country as a high-tech state,” said Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister of digital transformation, after legalizing Bitcoin last September

But now as more than 100,000 Russian troops amass at the border, Ukrainians in the crypto industry are hoping the troops and the media reporting about them don’t cast the country in a bad light that scares away investment.

The border tensions “increase risks that were already high, and people by nature will go to more safer options,” said Illia Polosukhin, the Ukrainian cofounder of NEAR Protocol, a decentralized application platform competing against Ethereum. On top of creating investor doubt, the military situation is also mentally straining for entrepreneurs inside Ukraine, Polosukhin noted.

“When you’re stressed you cannot take risks. You cannot think creatively,” he said. “Building startups is risk. Building startups is creative work. Crypto is especially creative because who knows what we’re doing yet?”

An apartment or a token

Ukraine ranks fourth on the Global Crypto Adoption Index, compiled by data firm Chainalysis, which estimates roughly $8 billion worth of cryptocurrency enters and exits the country annually. The daily volume of cryptocurrency transactions stands at around $150 million—exceeding the volume of interbank exchanges in fiat currency, the hryvnia, according to the New York Times

Most of the growth in the decentralized finance market comes down to a lack of other investment opportunities, say Ukrainian software developers, who note that since becoming independent from Russia in 1991, there has been little investment opportunity beyond real estate.

“People, and especially post-Soviet people with that older mentality, their first investment choice if they have some money in their pockets, they just invest in real estate. That was kind of the top priority where they put their money,” said Dmitry Tolok, who runs Primex Finance, a company developing a brokerage protocol using blockchain.

“Crypto is another quite easy asset,” he said, adding that big global exchanges like Binance are the reason behind crypto’s popularity: “People are just throwing money at it, because there are not a lot of other investment opportunities in emerging markets.”

Ukraine also doesn’t have a robust stock market, and foreign ones are out of reach for many Ukrainians, making it one of the poorest countries in Europe with most of the capital flowing out of the Ukrainian economy. 

“Crypto became a place to go. You’re either investing in real estate or buying crypto. There are no other options in Ukraine,” said Polosukhin of NEAR Protocol.  

New tech economy 

Beyond the money circulating in the crypto markets, Ukraine also has a deep talent pool of developers. Dutch IT company Daxx put Ukraine as No. 1 for attractiveness in terms of IT outsourcing in 2021 and the best in the world for hiring programmers.

For those in the government, turning this to Ukraine’s advantage seemed simple. With money flowing in the system and a large group of highly talented developers willing to work on it, the next obvious step was to write regulation that would attract people to come and invest.

Regulation would benefit society, business, and the state, Oleksandr Bornyakov, Ukraine’s deputy minister of digital transformation, noted at the time the country legalized Bitcoin: “The adoption of specialized legislation is going to stimulate the attraction of foreign exchanges to the Ukrainian market.”

The Ukrainian digital ministry set a goal to double the percentage that tech adds to the country’s GDP from 5% to 10%, and double the number of people in the tech industry to half a million. 

The Russian roadblock

But now as regulators within Ukraine try to regulate crypto markets, Russian tensions loom—and not only in the military sense.

Unlike Ukraine, its heavily fortified neighbor is threatening to ban cryptocurrency usage and mining owing to its energy intensive nature, its price volatility, and the threat it poses to Russia’s currency, the ruble. While Russia’s central bank calls for an outright ban (Russia’s finance ministry has voiced its opposition to such a blanket move), Ukraine has long positioned itself as a crypto-friendly country, Bornyakov told Fortune.

“Our positive stance on crypto indeed stands in contrast with neighbors where officials propose a ban on the use and mining of cryptocurrencies,” Bornyakov said. “I’d like to remind them crypto regulation will work better than a ban.”

When regulation is finalized, many Ukrainians are still hopeful that investment will come despite military tensions. “I know some companies with billions of assets under management that will definitely use that to have their offices here—and store some of their capital here and pay tax on it,” said Tolok.

But with the border crisis things are not so clear.

“Those big tensions that are being speculated on by the media, it affects how investors think about Ukraine and potential assets. It is playing a very bad role, for sure. No one is coming to Ukraine because of that, and we still don’t have any regulation,” Tolok noted.  

“There was foreign investment happening. Now it may contract to some extent. The way all of this is positioned in Western news is not helping,” said Polosukhin, who added with optimism: “I am from Ukraine. I really want to support people there and figure out how they can shift from the service industry to building innovative projects, which I know they can.”

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