Swiss freeze more than $6 billion worth of sanctioned Russian assets

Protest in support of Ukraine, in Geneva
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By Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi and Michael Shields

ZURICH (Reuters) -Switzerland has frozen around 5.75 billion Swiss francs ($6.17 billion) worth of Russian assets covered by sanctions, and that amount is likely to rise, a government official said on Thursday.

"Today, for the first time, I can give you an indication of the amount of frozen funds. To date, SECO has been notified of funds and assets totalling around 5.750 billion Swiss francs," said Erwin Bollinger, a senior official at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) agency overseeing sanctions.

That included a number of properties in cantons which served as tourism resorts, he told a news conference in Bern.

SECO had until now declined to estimate the extent of assets frozen or potentially subject to sanctions since the neutral country began adopting European Union sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

"The cited number of far over 5 billion francs relates to a snapshot in time," Bollinger noted. "With further reports coming in and potential additions to EU sanctions lists, which Switzerland would also assume, it is likely this number will rise further."

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has heaped pressure on Switzerland -- a popular destination for Moscow's elite and a holding place for Russian wealth -- to more quickly identify and freeze assets of hundreds of sanctioned Russians.

Its banks hold up to $213 billion of Russian wealth, Switzerland's bank lobby estimates.

However, actually finding assets to freeze is a bureaucratic headache.

SECO has faced criticism for being underprepared and understaffed to handle the reports swamping the agency, even as journalists quiz officials over further assets likely slipping through the cracks.

"We can't just go on a fishing expedition and collect material from every government department," Bollinger said.

"It's the same as in road traffic: there are rules that have to be followed, even without a police officer standing at every traffic light."

Regional officials have expressed confusion over implementing the sanctions, pointing to a lack of clear directives. Bollinger acknowledged improvements could be made.

Banks are combing through records to ensure no one under sanctions slips through the cracks. Credit Suisse, for instance, has sought permission to let 20 compliance staff work nights, weekends and holidays.

Bollinger cautioned against assuming that the hundreds of billions of Russian wealth parked in Switzerland was all subject to sanctions.

"Not every sanctioned individual or entity has assets in Switzerland," he said. "And, on the other hand, not every Russian who holds assets in Switzerland is simultaneously on the sanctions lists."

($1 = 0.9320 Swiss francs)

(Reporting by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi; Editing by Michael Shields and Bernadette Baum)