Russia

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

By Simon Quijano-Evans of Commerzbank

Today’s surprise visit by President François Hollande and Chancellor Angela Merkel to Moscow must be seen as the final attempt to find peace in Ukraine. This can only be brought about through: 1) full coordination between the EU and Russia at all levels, with clear pledges from the Ukrainian government and separatist forces to do the same and 2) the presence of a meaningful international peacekeeping force to secure the agreed-on buffer zone in eastern Ukraine. Indeed, as we hear from the US debate on providing arms to Ukraine, the alternative to peace would be full escalation and definitely not a “frozen” conflict, given that Russia’s military doctrine sees Nato as one of the main threats to national security. Read more

By Taras Kuzio of the University of Alberta

Russia, despite its repeated denials, is sending large quantities of military equipment to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine along with 9,000 of its troops. Movement of Russian forces, including the Pantsir-S1 missile system, are being tracked by think tanks and western intelligence agencies. Only Russian professional (not conscript) troops and intelligence officers can operate highly sophisticated Russian military equipment – not irregular separatist forces. Read more

Russia’s surprise cut in its key interest rate to 15 per cent from 17 per cent on Friday was primarily a product of political pressure and may do more harm than good to Moscow’s twin aims of restraining inflation while softening the impact of an incipient recession, analysts said.

“The CBR’s (Central Bank of Russia) move will likely have quite a reverse effect on inflation,” said Vladimir Tikhomirov, chief economist at BCS Financial Group, a Russian investment bank. “The market is already increasing pressure on the rouble which, in turn, will transform into higher – rather than lower – inflationary expectations going forward.” Read more

By Vladimir Tikhomirov, BCS Financial Group

Russia’s central bank faces a dilemma at its monetary policy meeting on Friday. It stated when it hiked interest rates to 17 per cent last month – to their highest levels since 2003 – that this increase would be a temporary measure to defend the rouble. However, inflation stubbornly remains high, restricting the bank’s room to manoeuver.

Indeed, recent inflation data suggests that the new interest rate could stay for much longer. According to the official statistical agency, in December Russia’s consumer price index (CPI) jumped by 2.6 per cent month-on-month which is the highest level on record since the period of mid-1990s when inflation was running at unsustainable high double-digit rates. Read more

A year ago when the Olympic torch arrived in Sochi, many observers were warning that interest in the Russian Black Sea resort would fizzle out once the 2014 winter games were over. But that was before western sanctions and falling oil prices began weighing on the Russian economy and sending the rouble into a nosedive.

Russians no longer able to afford foreign ski holidays and chalets are now flocking to the slopes of Sochi and investing their depreciating rubles in mountain side homes built for the Olympics. For the first time Sochi has been included in the annual ranking of the world’s top twenty ski resorts by price growth for prime residences, compiled by Knight Frank, the global real estate consultancy. Read more

“Sanctions are like exposure to radioactive materials,” says Stanislaw Secrieru, an analyst at the Polish Institute for International Affairs (PISM). “The longer Russia is exposed to them, the stronger the impact.”

 

The fallout so far has been rather impressive, argues Secrieru and his colleagues who have authored what they say is the first full summary of the scope and impact of western sanctions on Russia’s economy, politics and society since they were first imposed in April last year.

 Read more

The impact of US sanctions against Russia has rippled far beyond Moscow to the South Korean town of Pyeongtaek, home to carmaker Ssangyong Motor.

Russia has been the biggest export market for Ssangyong, which primarily makes sports utility vehicles, during its recovery from receivership over the past five years. But its sales in the country fell by over 30 per cent last year and there is no immediate recovery in sight, the chairman of Ssangyong’s Indian owner Mahindra Group told beyondbrics on Tuesday. Read more

By Daniel Gallucci

Half a world away from snowy Moscow, Russia’s deepening economic crisis is reverberating upon the palm-fringed beaches and castaway islands of Thailand. The droves of holidaymakers from Russian cities visiting Thai resorts are dwindling, deterred not so much by the southeast Asian nation’s military coup earlier this year as by the rout of the rouble.

As the chart below shows, Russians seeking a warm refuge from the prolonged winter of home were relatively unfazed in early 2014 by the mounting political tensions in Thailand that led to the May military coup. Read more

In a dreadful week for the rouble, Alexander Lukashenka, the president of Belarus, has gone out of his way to make matters worse, threatening to suspend the use of the Russian currency in bilateral trading deals.

“If they are buying our products in Russia they can pay in dollars,” Lukashenka told a government meeting in Minsk on Thursday. If Belarus has to deal in the world’s worst performing currency “then it has to be at the exchange rate on the very day, on the very hour. ” Read more

Russian asset prices have taken a severe battering this year and are now ranked as among the cheapest in the world. The obvious question many are now asking is, “is this a good time to buy” or “is there more pain to come” which might lead to even lower prices and valuations in 2015?

Apart from the cheap valuations, the reason why investors are asking that question now is because, during Russia’s previous two recent crises, in 1998/’99 and 2008/’09, we had similar situations where the reasons to continue avoiding the country were overwhelming but it was, nevertheless, exactly the right time to buy. Read more

Timothy AshBy Timothy Ash of Standard Bank

This time last year I was asked to contribute an article for beyondbrics on the outlook for 2014, and I chose Ukraine (see Hello 2014: Ukraine’s crisis may run and run, December 20, 2014). That post turned out to be prescient, although even I could never have imagined the remarkable turn of events in that country this year.

For 2015 I think Ukraine will remain in the headlines, but its future is likely at least partially to be determined by events in its eastern neighbour, Russia. The new reform administration in Kiev can succeed, if Moscow gives it some breathing space and scales back its own direct intervention in Ukraine. Read more

By Joseph Dobbs, European Leadership Network

Russian aggression towards Ukraine this past year has seen Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, lambasted by Western leaders. China has desisted from such criticism and instead signed two major gas deals worth hundreds of billions of dollars, co-operated in establishing a new development bank, and conducted joint military exercises. For some, Russia and China’s co-operation demonstrates their potential to challenge the global order. But in reality Russia’s pivot east faces too many hurdles to represent a viable alternative to working with the West.

Russia and China have much in common. Both states are increasingly nationalistic and share a common perceived threat of Western containment. In Russia’s case this threat comes primarily from the potential expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). China’s perception of US containment strategies derives mainly from the American military presence in East Asia. Leaders in Moscow and Beijing have both watched with unease as the West supported the Arab Spring and the so-called “colour revolutions” that rocked the likes of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Read more

Russia’s 10-year bond yield has climbed for the 10th consecutive day to a new five-year high of 12.4 per cent as investors continue to exit the country’s financial markets, fast FT reports.

The rouble regained its footing somewhat last week, but only thanks to central bank intervention. It is today once again the world’s worst performing major currency, falling 1.4 per cent to 53.62 per US dollar (see chart below). Read more