When War Hits, Even Crypto Can't Stay Neutral

When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, cryptocurrency fans appeared to be trapped in a decadent fantasy. A batch of CryptoPunk NFTs (blockchain collectibles) had just been yanked from auction at Sotheby’s amid fading enthusiasm and a broader market sell-off. The seller tweeted Drake memes to laugh off the canceled event, but considering the glitzy marketing campaign, it was a humbling moment.

A week later, another CryptoPunk is sitting in a Ukraine government account as part of a $51 million fundraising drive. Kyiv is using its tech-savviness to appeal for all sorts of assets that it can sell to finance the war effort. Like the New Zealand lamb donated in the First World War, or chunks of the Berlin Wall sold as memorabilia for a good cause, NFTs are finding a new use in conflict beyond social status and virtual wealth.

Crypto evangelists have been quick to leap on the implications of their favorite asset as a “lifeline” in war after years of bad press over speculation, illicit money flows and criminal activity. With financial markets cratering and sanctions piling up on Russia, digital tokens and artworks are being sought as an alternative to otherwise vulnerable forms of payment. Bitcoin trading in rubles and hryvnia is surging.

It may very well be that this is what wartime back-channels will look like in the future. Crypto has traditionally been user-agnostic, used by Ukraine-linked organizations that have been blocked because of military ties, or stolen to reportedly fund North Korea missile programs.

But there’s a bigger dose of reality here for crypto’s utopian narrative of “borderless” and “stateless” money as bombs rain down at Europe’s doorstep. In a world where even Switzerland is ditching historic neutrality, crypto is finding it hard to escape geopolitical facts on the ground.