Russia

Much has been said over the last six months about the collapse of the Russian economy as a result of sanctions and the falling oil price, on top of other negative factors such as bureaucracy and corruption, high inflation, inefficiencies in production, ageing infrastructure, a failure to innovate and diversify and capital flight. A slew of economic data point to a deep recession, and US President Barack Obama describes Russia’s economy as being in tatters. No one seems to be denying the long-term negative impact on the economy; even the government expects two tough years ahead, a prediction regarded as hopelessly optimistic by many economists.

However, anecdotally at least, it doesn’t feel like a financial meltdown here in Russia. Read more

Margrethe Vestager is one of the most influential women in Danish politics but it was her recent decisions as European Commissioner for Competition to take on both Google and Gazprom that turned her into a globally recognised figure.

The two cases are very different. Google’s dominance may be a fleeting one and its alleged ability to impose on its customers an inferior service – search algorithms favouring its own products – is limited by the availability of competing search engines. Gazprom, in contrast, fits better the textbook idea of a monopolist: switching to alternative energy sources is a considerably less trivial exercise than making Bing your new homepage. Read more

As revelations about cyber-attacks launched against the US last autumn show, Russia is engaged in a relentless intelligence war against the west. Other targets of Russian cyber-warfare have included Germany, Estonia, Romania, Ukraine and Georgia. As James Clapper, the US director of National Intelligence, recently told the US Senate, the Russian threat is “more severe than we have previously assessed”. The ability of Russian hackers to successfully access the State Department and White House computer networks should serve as a wake-up call. The US and its Nato allies must respond by developing a more effective tool kit for dealing with this threat. Read more

The Russian rouble has moved from above 70 to the US dollar in late January to around 50 in mid-April, making it one of the best-performing currencies in the world this year. This is particularly remarkable as the dollar has been quite strong during this period, continuing to appreciate against the euro. So, what is behind this sudden rouble strength?

For most of last year, the rouble traded on the oil price and geopolitics, so it could be assumed that either of those two factors has changed materially. The oil price has moved from $56 to $60 per barrel this year, and the so-called Minsk II agreement was reached on February 12. Is that enough to explain the recovery? Probably not, especially considering that the oil price has been flat over the past two months while the rouble rallied the most. The rouble thus seems to have de-correlated from the oil price, at least partially and temporarily. And there has been fairly broad international scepticism over the Minsk II agreement (which we do not share by the way), making it difficult to believe that that is the reason behind the rouble’s strength. Read more

By Taras Kuzio of the University of Alberta

This week, St Petersburg hosted a bizarre gathering organized by the Rodina (Motherland) party of 150 European fascist and nationalist-populist political parties united in their opposition to the EU and US and in support of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. Rodina is the loyal nationalist ally of President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party and consequently plays a similar role to the Radical Party’s alliance with the Serbian Socialist party. Read more

By Yoel Sano, Head of Political Risk, BMI Research

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, a military confrontation between Russia and the West over the Baltic states is no longer unthinkable. Under what circumstances could this happen? How would such a conflict play out, and what might happen once such a war ended?

The notion of large-scale warfare in Europe – even without the nuclear dimension – would send shockwaves around the world, threatening to overturn the entire post-Cold War order. If the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) failed to defend the Baltics or were to lose against Russia, then Asia and the Middle East would also be destabilised, as doubts grew over the reliability of the US as an ally. This would usher in a much more unstable geopolitical climate, akin to the 1930s. Read more

When General Motors, citing “very challenging long term prospects,” slammed the brakes on its Russian investments this week, the Kremlin said it was making a big mistake. Russia’s car market would eventually rebound from the crisis and the US auto company “would find itself among the losers,” said Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin. Read more

Blink and you missed it. The day after the US Federal Reserve appeared on Wednesday to put back the date of its long-awaiting interest rate rise, analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch wrote to clients: “Emerging market currencies temporarily halted their losing streak with a dovish Federal Open Market Committee sending the USD lower.”

“Temporarily” is right. The Brazilian real closed at about R$3.21 to the dollar on Wednesday from its open of R$3.24, a rare day’s gain in a two-month slide. But on Thursday it was back on course, falling quickly beyond R$3.30 before recovering a bit, an intraday move of nearly 3 per cent. In less dramatic manner, the Turkish lira, Russian rouble and South African rand all resumed their downward slides, too. Read more

So, how would you go about bailing out a war-zone? The IMF’s rescue plan for Ukraine, agreed by the fund’s executive board last week, has to grapple with an extraordinary combination of problems. On top of the usual party pack of issues endured by IMF borrowers – a collapsing currency, a large debt burden, a corrupt and sclerotic economy – Ukraine faces the unusual challenge of a belligerent nuclear-armed neighbour fomenting a civil war.

In this context, the critical question of whether to restructure private sector debt becomes an unusual one. The IMF made obvious mistakes in previous crisis countries such as Argentina and Greece, where debt restructurings were delayed until the situation had gone critical. This experience suggests a rapid early reduction in net present value, including a cut in face value if necessary, to tip debt dynamics towards stability. But where there is a large and completely uncontrollable risk that might instantly change the situation, there is a strong case for giving Ukraine medium-term breathing space rather than a once-and-for-all write-off. Read more

A long awaited plan by the European Union to import Caspian gas moved forward this week as construction work began on the Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (Tanap) in Turkey.

Tanap is the central link in the EU-backed Southern Gas Corridor, a jigsaw of existing and planned pipelines designed to diversify Caspian energy export routes and reduce European dependence on Russian gas. Initially, the 3,500km SGC network will transport gas from the giant, BP-led Shah Deniz field in offshore Azerbaijan, but could in future draw supplies from other Caspian and central Asian countries and even the Middle East, changing the energy map of the whole region. Read more

By Andrew Foxall of The Henry Jackson Society

Unwilling to go to war with Russia, the west’s main levers for persuading Vladimir Putin to back down over Ukraine are economic sanctions. Their importance was underscored last week, when the US announced new measures against 14 individuals and two entities. While the attention-grabbing name on the US list was Aleksandr Dugin, the academic-turned-policymaker whose musings on ‘Eurasianism’ has led some to refer to him as “Putin’s Brain”, another entity was the little-known Russian National Commercial Bank (RNCB). Read more

By Simon Saradzhyan

To hear Vladimir Putin say it, Russia is not at war with Ukraine. “I think that this apocalyptic scenario is highly unlikely, and I hope it never comes to that,” Putin said when asked on Russia’s Defender of the Fatherland Day whether his fellow citizens may “wake up one day to learn we are at war” with Ukraine. It can be inferred that the commander-in-chief of the Russian armed force believes (or wants us to believe) that there will be no war between Russia and Ukraine for as long as Moscow refuses to admit to its involvement in the conflict. But is there such a thing as a declared war any more? And how should other European nations respond if they become the target of an undeclared war? What can be done to prevent repetition of the Ukraine scenario elsewhere in Europe?

 Read more

By Taras Kuzio of the University of Alberta

One of the most challenging tasks faced by journalists writing on international affairs is to compare and contrast language used by neo-Soviet authoritarians and western diplomats with reality on the ground.

Foremost is the Orwellian doublespeak habitually used by neo-Soviet leaders such as Russia’s Present Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s ex-President Viktor Yanukovych. Testifying before the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, for example, Secretary of State John Kerry said Russian officials had repeatedly lied to him and other western leaders over their country’s intervention in eastern Ukraine. Read more

By David Clark of the Russia Foundation

For all the attention given to the fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk, it is clear that Ukraine cannot solve its problems by military means alone. If there is a route to national salvation it lies in the field of domestic reform and the quest to find a new model of internal development. It is only by emulating the achievement of neighbouring Poland and becoming a well-governed country with a strong, dynamic economy that Ukraine can hope to escape from its current predicament. As a ‘Slavic tiger’ it could provide a source of attraction strong enough to regain eventual control over the territories it has lost and perhaps even become a catalyst for change in Russia itself. Stuck in a post-Soviet rut of dysfunctional institutions and economic stagnation, it will remain weak and vulnerable to Putin’s policy of divide and rule. Read more

With food prices in Russia surging by more than 20 per cent, you might expect parliament to debate the merits of tit for tat sanctions that bar imports of fresh produce from the west. But a group of independent lawmakers who demanded an end to the embargo on Thursday got a frosty response from their colleagues in the Duma and were even branded as traitors. Read more

By Timothy Ash of Standard Bank

The crisis in Ukraine shows no sign of abating any time soon.

Minsk I and II have failed to bring a real ceasefire or to provide a basis for negotiations over a lasting settlement. Indeed, Minsk II appears likely to follow the script from Minsk I, bringing only a temporary lull in fighting, as the two sides tactically re-position on the ground and in the international diplomatic scene before recommitting to the battle to ensure delivery on their longer term strategic objectives. Read more

By Oleg Babinov, The Risk Advisory Group

On February 2, the Financial Times reported that ExxonMobil is considering acquisitions to ‘strengthen its long-term production potential’. Exxon’s Vice President said that the current business climate “presents a number of really good opportunities” and investment analysts expected the company to take “advantage of depressed oil and gas valuations”. And with falling oil prices, it’s likely that other buyers and sellers across the world will be looking to do the same and start the hunt for potential acquisitions.

Could some of these acquisitions take place in Russia? Yes, I think so – in spite of the international sanctions and, in a way, thanks to them. Read more

By Taras Kuzio of the University of Alberta

Victory over Ukrainian forces at Debaltseve last week was the best present that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, could have hoped for on the first anniversary of the Euromaidan – a victory won with the increasingly open involvement of Russian military forces.

As European leaders marched with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev, a terrorist attack on another march of dignity in Kharkiv killed two and wounded many more. Ukraine’s security service foiled further bomb attacks in Kharkiv and Odessa.

Why did it happen? Read more

By Dalibor Rohac of the Cato Institute

Are things finally turning around for Ukraine? In the space of a few hours on Thursday, a cease-fire with the Kremlin-sponsored separatists was agreed in Minsk, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pledged $17.5bn in financial assistance to the government as part of a package from various donors totalling $40bn.

The events on Kiev’s Maidan last year opened a window of opportunity to stop the economic, social and human devastation of Ukraine by its own political elites. The popular will to stop corruption and fix the country’s political and economic institutions was palpable. Two successive governments of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk have included a number of promising reformists, raising hopes that this time might be different. Read more

By Taras Kuzio of the University of Alberta

European leaders desperate to avoid going down an Iranian-style route of economic and financial sanctions and to dissuade the US from sending weapons signed a second agreement to end the fighting in Ukraine on Thursday in the Belarus capital, Minsk. But it will be as unworkable as the first Minsk agreement signed in September 2014. The new agreement has weaknesses similar to those of its predecessor and will unravel in the next few months. Read more