Russia politics

Vladimir Putin will look back on 2016 as an annus mirabilis. Isolated and straining under the impact of western sanctions 12 months ago, the president has managed to transform Russia’s international fortunes thanks to an extraordinary run of good luck. Brexit, the migration crisis and the current surge of right-wing populism have enfeebled Europe and weakened its resolve to maintain a tough collective stance towards Russia. Putin’s military intervention in support of Bashar al-Assad has put his ally within sight of victory in the Syrian civil war. Best of all, Donald Trump is about to enter the White House on a promise to repair US-Russia relations on the Kremlin’s terms. On every front, the tide of events appears to be flowing strongly in Putin’s direction.

The new mood was apparent last month when he met Rodrigo Duterte, his counterpart in the Philippines, at the Asia-Pacific summit. Duterte used the occasion to complain about western “bullying” and declared his desire to be part of a “new order” led by Russia and China. When you consider that the remarks come from the leader of a country that has been a mainstay of the US alliance system in Asia since the early years of the Cold War, it is clear that something significant is afoot. Putin is managing to extend Russia’s diplomatic reach beyond its traditional constituency among the world’s radical and anti-American regimes. Read more

By Nick Kochan

The election of a majority Social Democratic PSD party in Romania this past weekend gives the country a chance to push the reset button on its relations with foreign investors.

After a year when the government has been drawn into fruitless squabbles in commercial courts and arbitrations with no less than five international companies, now is the time to reassure investors that Romania is open for business. The time to close the book on introspective and opaque government is long overdue.

Energy companies have been in the forefront of these battles with Romanian officialdom. So the government took Enel, the Italian energy company, to court over a breach in a privatisation contract but ended in July 2016 facing a €1bn bill. E.on, the German energy company, won an arbitration dispute in Paris and the government was forced to pay its legal costs. Read more

By Ariel Cohen, Atlantic Council

The mood is festive in the Russian capital, and expectations are high that Donald Trump’s elections may turn a new page in the difficult relationship between Moscow and Washington.

The death spiral of US-Russian ties stretches back through the Barack Obama years to George W. Bush’s second term, when Russia invaded neighboring Georgia. Things got as bad as during the darkest days of the Cold War, but now the time may have come to reverse course.

Mr Trump, Moscow’s logic goes, has a warm place in his heart for Russia’s long-serving president, Vladimir Putin. He expresses realpolitik instincts compatible with Putin’s worldview. Read more

By Septimus Knox, Alaco

Remote, long-forgotten industrial towns rarely make the front pages in Russia, never mind internationally. But for a few days in September Norilsk, home to the world’s largest producer of nickel and palladium, hit the headlines, although for all the wrong reasons.

A chemical spill turned the Daldykan River red, and photographs of the contamination went viral. Norilsk and other so-called monotowns are located in some of the most inhospitable parts of the country. Centred on a single factory, plant or mill, they fuelled Soviet-era industrialisation.

They remain key to Russia’s economy, yet many are now in terminal decline. 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

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.

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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

Vladimir Putin seemed pretty emphatic on Monday that Russia would stop construction of the South Stream gas pipeline, shelving a strategically important project that Moscow was counting on to cement its influence in south-eastern Europe.

Speaking after talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his Turkish counterpart, in Ankara, Putin said Russia would abandon the project to bring Russian gas to Bulgaria under the Black Sea, bypassing Ukraine, unless the EU dropped its opposition.

But does this really mark the full stop that it appears to be? It is true that Alexei Miller, CEO of Gazprom, the company charged with building the pipeline, told reporters: “that’s it, the project is closed”. But analysts see a more subtle game in play. Read more

By Relte Stephen Schutte, Markit

In spite of what you might expect to be a “perfect storm” scenario for Russian stocks, inflows of investment capital into Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) – investment funds traded on stock markets much as a stock would trade – have remained strong.

Net inflows into the 23 Russian tracking ETFs have proved buoyant in the last three months in spite of continued sanctions by the US and Europe and Moscow’s destabilising actions in Ukraine. Such inflows take 2014 net inflows into Russian ETFs past the $1bn mark (see chart), an extraordinary performance given the negative newsflow surrounding Russia. Read more

By Andrew Foxall, The Henry Jackson Society

Western sanctions against Russia, first imposed in March, have strengthened that significant body of Russia’s elite who want to see a much more state-led style of development. During last week’s Valdai Club meeting in Sochi, President Putin argued that sanctions would help Russia’s ambitions by reducing its economic dependence on the West.

While Russia’s emphasis on self-sufficiency pre-dates the Ukraine crisis, its statism has intensified as Russia’s economy has started to show the strain of sanctions. Read more

If you’re an emerging market and there’s a geoeconomic grouping you’re looking for, you’ve got a few to choose from. In Asia there is Asean - ten countries in search of common ground. In Latin America there is Mercosur - five countries in search of common tariffs. And from the Atlantic west to the Black Sea there is Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation – four adjectives in search of a noun.

But none of these has the distinction of having been a marketing campaign by Goldman Sachs got out of control. The Brics nations, apparently noticing a small clearing in the densely-thicketed field of international relations, seized on the designation to set up their own diplomatic process. The sixth leaders’ summit will take place next week in Fortaleza, Brazil, with the host nation hopefully performing better than at its other major international gathering.

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Rosneft has raised the stakes in its campaign to strip Gazprom of its monopoly over Russian gas exports. In a sharply worded statement on Tuesday, Russia’s state oil company threatened to take Gazprom to court unless it opened up a planned pipeline to China to rival gas producers.

Gazprom has been gearing up to build the Power of Siberia pipeline since signing a $400bn gas export contract with China in May. Linking vast Gazprom controlled gas fields in east Siberia with the Russian Pacific, the 4,000km pipeline will feed gas to domestic consumers and to the Chinese border. Read more

By Andrew Foxall of The Henry Jackson Society

The prospect of Russia invading Ukraine may be receding, but Russia’s standoff with the West continues to affect the Russian economy by damaging its banks’ ability to access funding. It has also led Russia to step-up its efforts to decrease its dependency on the West, as part of which it plans to establish a joint rating agency with China.

After the imposition of Western sanctions against Russia in March, Igor Shuvalov, Russia’s deputy prime minister, warned that the biggest damage to Russia would come not from the targeted sanctions but from “hidden” measures, such as political pressure on rating agencies. Read more

As Russia steps up control of the internet, electronic payment processors are feeling the heat. Qiwi and PayPal cited security concerns when they halted co-operation with RosUznik, a Russian charity that supports political prisoners, this week. RosUznik suspects political motives.

Founded in late 2011 as a wave of anti-government protests erupted in Moscow, RosUznik collects charitable donations to help fund legal aid for opposition activists undergoing trial or in detention. Read more

By Andrew Foxall of The Henry Jackson Society

Russia may have completed decade-long negotiations to sell gas to China in a deal worth US$400 bn over the next 30 years, but the agreement barely begins to paper over the all-too-obvious cracks in Russia’s weakening economy. Moscow’s stock market reacted positively to the deal, but it is down 4.8% year-to-date. Elsewhere, all other indicators of economic prosperity in Russia have decreased since the start of 2014.

Russia is more dependent on the global economy than it ever has been. And it seeks even greater dependency – as President Putin made clear in his opening remarks to the St Petersburg International Economic Forum earlier today. On the one hand, dependency brings with it obvious benefits. On the other, it leaves a country much more open to the vagaries of investor sentiments and perceptions of political risks as well as expected economic returns. Read more

With the Ukraine crisis casting a shadow over Russia’s gas trade with Europe, Gazprom has moved to shore up relations with Turkey, its second biggest foreign gas customer after Germany. In talks in Ankara on Monday, Russia’s state gas monopoly agreed to boost capacity in the Blue Stream pipeline that transports gas across the Black Sea to northern Turkey.

On a working visit to Ankara on Monday, Alexander Medvedev, deputy head of Gazprom, met Taner Yildiz, Turkey’s energy minister, for talks aimed at boosting gas co-operation between the two countries. The two men agreed that capacity in Blue Stream should be upgraded to to 19bn cubic meters a year from 16bn cubic meters a year to enhance Turkish energy security. Read more

A wave of patriotism is sweeping Russia following the annexation of Crimea. But will the euphoria last long enough to have Russians invest in the Black Sea peninsula and support the local economy by holidaying there? Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, chaired a government meeting on Monday to discuss how to make Crimea a going concern.

It sounds like a daunting task. The Kremlin took a huge risk when it redrew the map of Ukraine last week and took possession of Crimea. Western powers have condemned the move as a land grab and are threatening Russia with painful sanctions and decades of international isolation. Read more