Ukraine-Russia

Last month’s release of Ukrainian air force pilot Nadia Savchenko after 709 days in illegal Russian captivity came on the same day a group of us were returning from the front line of Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) to Kiev. During the longer than usual train journey we compared notes about why Russian President Vladimir Putin had taken this step, what he hoped to achieve and how Savchenko would impact upon Ukrainian domestic politics.

Putin was not showing mercy. The day after Savchenko was released, a Russian court sentenced Ukrainians Mykola Karpyuk and Stanislav Klykhto to 22 and a half and 20 years respectively on bogus charges of fighting alongside Chechen separatists. And this by a country that has been arming separatists in eastern Ukraine for three years. Another 28 Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar political prisoners are incarcerated in Russian jails.

Instead, Putin had two goals in releasing Savchenko. Read more

The debate on the future of Europe and Britain within it is heating up. This week, Boris Johnson highlighted the problems with “EU foreign policy-making on the hoof”, suggesting that it had contributed to the protracted conflict in Ukraine. He was quickly branded a “Putin apologist” by adversaries.

None of Boris’s critics seem to have noticed that this is a clear case of shooting the messenger. What Boris has done is raise a legitimate concern. He is giving Europe a long-overdue reminder that in order to survive, it needs to get stronger. Read more

This year, Ukrainians can look forward to progress in their favour in relations with Russia and with the European Union. At home, however, there will be growing political instability.

First, foreign policy. Progress on two fronts is closely interlinked. Ukraine gained its independence in 1991 when Russia had been weakened by an imploding USSR and a failed hard-line coup d’état. Vladimir Putin’s Russia of 2016 will increasingly come to resemble Leonid Brezhnev’s USSR of the late 1980s. Read more

Moscow seems intent on re-engaging with the international community after being relegated to the sidelines following the conflict in Ukraine. The Kremlin is not necessarily becoming more accommodative to the west, but there are changes in several areas that suggest President Vladimir Putin wants to play a more active role internationally.

The fight against global terrorism is the most recent and perhaps most significant example of how Putin has re-emerged as a key player. His role at the recent G20 meeting in Ankara stands in stark contrast to the meeting in Brisbane a year ago when he left early after being shunned by the other leaders. Russia has also tried to play a more active role in the Middle East. Moscow proved productive in the Iran negotiations over the summer and that Russia is now circulating a proposed constitutional reform plan for Syria in the UN points in the same direction. Read more

Last Sunday Ukraine held elections to local councils and city mayors that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe described as “competitive and well organized overall” adding that “the campaign generally showed respect for the democratic process”.

The holding of a third democratic election in Ukraine since last year’s Euromaidan revolution in a region where free elections are uncommon is one of many signs of how far Ukraine is moving away from Russia and to what extent the actions of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, have accelerated this process. Read more

The annual Yalta European Strategy conference, now relocated to Kiev until further notice, is a good place to take the political temperature of Ukraine. Last weekend’s gathering saw the country’s ruling elite, from President Petro Poroshenko down, out in force and keen to talk. What regular attendees noted most was the change of mood since last year: less appetite for apportioning blame and more focus on what Ukraine can do to rebuild itself. There was even room for guarded optimism. A snap poll showed that most participants expect to see Ukraine to be stable, growing and with its conflict in the East frozen, if not solved, within three years.

There are certainly reasons to argue that Ukraine is beginning to turn the corner. Its currency has stabilised, the renegotiation of its sovereign debt has strengthened its fiscal outlook and a return to growth is widely anticipated. The government’s economic programme recently earned praise from Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s managing director. The problem is that while it is possible to detect an improvement in Ukraine’s macroeconomic position, it will take longer for this to feed through into anything resembling a feel good factor in the country as a whole. Read more

As always, there is a great deal of noise around the Russia story and that makes it difficult for investors to identify the core issues with the greatest impact on risk. There is a lot of concern and speculation over the next steps in eastern Ukraine and the possible consequences for sanctions. Russia is also viewed as being among the most exposed to any deterioration in China’s growth outlook and from the yuan devaluation. On top of which is the daily battering from the sliding oil price.

There can be no argument that Russia is in a very precarious and even dangerous position. The 4.6 per cent preliminary estimate for GDP contraction in Q2 confirms that. But, cutting though the noise and discarding extrapolations and exaggerations, there are two core issues which investors should now be most focused on and which will provide guidance as to whether investment risk is deteriorating or improving. Read more

More than 20 years after the Ukraine Independence Act that created the country I love, its future hangs in the balance once again.

Hostilities have resumed in Eastern Ukraine and the number of casualties is multiplying. Following three-way talks in Berlin on Monday, the leaders of Germany, France and Ukraine all reiterated the need to implement the Minsk cease-fire agreement hammered out this year in tense late-night talks involving Russia.

“We have only one single rule today and this is the full respect and implementation of the Minsk agreement,” said French President Francois Hollande. He is not alone in this view. Many in the west still cling to the hope of a political and diplomatic solution to the conflict in Ukraine.

Yet to imagine at this stage that Russia suddenly intends to abide by the Minsk II agreement is naïve, wishful thinking. Read more

The west is in danger of losing Ukraine unless there is a significant change in the scale and nature of its engagement with the country over the coming weeks and months. That is the somber reality European and US policy makers need to grasp as Ukraine is hit by a wave of protests, terrorist attacks and continued violations of the ceasefire by separatists in the east. Against a background of deepening hardship and rising political frustration, there is a very real risk that the reformist drive of the last few months will give way to a new populism that takes Ukraine backwards and opens the door to renewed Russian influence. Complacent western leaders must act before it’s too late. Read more

The good news is that Russian and Donbas separatist leaders have called an end to the “New Russia” project, which had targeted eight Russian-speaking regions of eastern and southern Ukraine for separatist agitation and union with Russia. The bad news is that while it always was a mistake to assume Ukraine’s Russian-speakers were fans of president Vladimir Putin, Ukraine’s political vacuum and its selective “de-oligarchisation” are allowing diehards from the former ruling Party of Regions grouped in the Opposition Bloc and funded by Ukraine’s powerful gas lobby to retain influence in eastern and southern Ukraine. Read more

Germany – and its chancellor Angela Merkel – deserve credit for the continuation of the EU’s sanctions regime against Russia. But Germany happens also to be home to the energy giant E.ON, which recently signed a (non-binding) memorandum, together with Russia’s Gazprom, Austria’s OMV, and Shell from the UK and the Netherlands, agreeing to the extension of the Nord Stream pipeline, which brings Russian gas into the European Union (EU).

The extension, to be completed by 2020, would double the transit capacity of the pipeline, currently at 55bn cubic meters per year. Together with Turkish Stream, another project Gazprom is toying with, it would make gas transit through Ukraine redundant by the time the country’s current contract with Gazprom expires in 2019. Read more

The Financial Times and Bloomberg have reported that the IMF is intending to categorise a $3bn 2-year eurobond sold by Ukraine in December 2013 to a Russian sovereign wealth fund as ‘official’ government to government lending. This decision, if confirmed, will directly effect not only the implementation of Ukraine’s $40bn IMF-led bailout agreed in March 2015 but also Russia’s leverage over Kiev at a time when Russian-backed separatists are fighting the Ukrainian army and allied volunteer battalions in two breakaway oblasts in the east of the country.

Ukraine, the Financial Times argued, would be weakened by the IMF’s decision as it would compel it to service and repay the Russian bond because the IMF is not allowed to disburse funds to countries in arrears to other IMF member governments. Bloomberg argued that Ukraine’s remaining private western bondholders would have to shoulder an even greater burden of the IMF-imposed ‘debt operations’ making it more difficult for Ukraine to reach an agreement to reduce its private sovereign debt obligations.

However, the unusual structuring of the $3bn Russian eurobond and the new western-backed Ukrainian government’s policy of trying to detach itself from Russia suggest otherwise. Read more

After a lull of several weeks, an upsurge of fighting near Donetsk is once again threatening Ukraine’s fragile ceasefire. A resumption of the Russian-backed offensive had been widely expected to follow last weekend’s Orthodox Easter celebrations, although Vladimir Putin’s precise intentions remain unclear. Is this the next phase of a slow-motion land grab, with Mariupol possibly the next target, or is it just a means of ratcheting up the pressure in an effort to force new concessions? Either way, Ukraine is going to need a lot more international support to weather the crisis. Read more

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, likes to say that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. Such views are reminiscent of the Tsarist Russian Empire and negate Ukraine’s recognition as a separate nation in the Soviet Union, whose collapse he laments as the “major geopolitical disaster” of the past century. Moscow, indeed, views the Ukrainian state as at best a legend or fantasy.

Yet Russians and Ukrainians hold widely divergent attitudes to their Soviet past. Nearly half of Russians believe the “sacrifices” (mass murder) made under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin were justified by rapid economic growth. Nearly 40 per cent of Russians view Stalin positively, according the a poll by the Levada CentreRead 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

By David Clark of the Russia Foundation

Natalie Jaresko, Ukraine’s finance minister, is in London this week to drum up support for her country’s ailing economy. It is badly needed. The physical destruction of property, the loss of production and the disruption to trade and finance caused by Russia’s military intervention mean that Ukraine has lost around a fifth of its economy in the last year. Forecasts that it will contract by a further 5.5 per cent this year are widely seen as optimistic. With the value of the hryvnia down by 70 per cent, inflation at around 35 per cent and foreign currency reserves running low, the IMF’s recently agreed $17.5bn support package already looks like a sticking plaster solution for an economy that needs a blood transfusion. Read more

It would be hard to put it another way. Volodymyr Lavrenchuk, chairman of the board at Raiffeisen Bank Aval, the biggest foreign lender in Ukraine, describes the situation on the market there as “very complicated”.

With Ukraine in economic and political crisis, with Crimea annexed by Russia and a pro-Russian rebellion in the Donbas, state and corporate finances have been badly hit with predictable effects on the country’s banks. “What we are seeing is a set of dramatic events that is hard to encounter anywhere else,” Lavrenchuk tells beyondbrics. 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

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