Russia's Sberbank bets big on tech reinvention

STORY: It was already Russia’s dominant lender.

But now Sberbank is doubling down on a push into technology.

Once a Soviet savings behemoth, it has been transformed by Chief Executive German Gref.

Boasting almost $530 billion in assets and 107 million retail clients, Gref has overseen investments in artificial intelligence, cloud services, big data and smart devices.

That has continued even as Western sanctions saw profits slump and access to hardware imports restricted.

Chief Technology Officer Andrei Belevtsev says that hasn’t been a problem:

“Last year, 85% of (global tech) vendors and producers refused to work with Russia in one way or another. However, none of these refusals led to any service malfunction and clients did not feel a thing.”

Russia has acknowledged shortcomings with its tech industry, such as its dependence on imported chips and other products.

Belevtsev wouldn’t say how Sberbank is still sourcing semiconductors.

Or if it’s using so-called “parallel imports” - shipments brought in without the maker’s permission.

"There is a certain number of chip producers and plants in the world. They still work. Some of them are under restrictions - that's okay, there are others.”

The bank’s message, as with many other sectors in Russia, is one of defiance.

Belevtsev presents the past year as merely a bump in the road for Russian tech.

He says Sberbank is committed to a push into smart devices - it’s already sold 1.5 million - and is betting on deeper ties with China to offset Western sanctions.

One market watcher told Reuters that the bank had "big ambitions" and a "bottomless wallet," making it hard to bet against.