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Russia's Sberbank to start operations in Crimea

St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF)

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's top lender Sberbank said on Wednesday it will start operations in Crimea, the peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

State-owned Sberbank said in a statement it had already installed its first ATMs in Crimea and would open branches during the first half of 2023.

Russia's largest companies had previously refused to operate in Crimea for fear of falling under Western sanctions. But the West sanctioned Sberbank last year in response to Russia sending tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine, paving the way for the bank to potentially start working in Crimea.

"Sberbank has formed a team and is starting to work on the Crimean peninsula," the bank said.

"Gradually, throughout 2023, the bank will open branches. The first of them - in the largest cities - will start operating in the first half of the year," it added.

Sberbank is one of several big Russian banks to have been blocked from the international SWIFT payments system and some senior executives have been personally hit by sanctions.

The bank has been forced to shut down some international operations - including almost all its European markets - in the wake of sanctions, but said in December it is eyeing opening an office in China within the next two years.

On Tuesday, Sberbank posted a 75.7% drop in net profit to 300.2 billion roubles ($4.4 billion) in 2022, under the impact of Western sanctions.

(Reporting by Reuters; editing by Jason Neely and Angus MacSwan)