How the EU Will Sanction Moscow Over the Ukrainian Crisis
For some time now, I have been telling you the real impact on the energy sector is global. Well, what has transpired over the past week in Ukraine is a clear testimony to that fact.
Now the focus of the Ukrainian crisis will shift from Paris – where negotiations have begun (however furtively) between the U.S. and Russia – to Brussels and what the European Union (EU) can accomplish in the way of sanctions.
Of course, the sanctions are only possible with U.S. support, and America has no direct seat at the EU table.
But the past few days here in London have once again reminded me of how little the West can usually accomplish without direction from Washington, D.C.
Everybody I am talking to, including representatives of Russian interests, recognizes the change in terrain regarding European responses.
There has been resolute oratory and posturing. But London can no longer lead; Berlin is already balancing its economic interests against the situation in Crimea; while the rest of Europe is worried about sanctions resulting in higher energy prices and the threat that Russia will reduce natural gas supplies moving west.
And all of this presents an obvious question for energy investors…
It’s simple really: What will the nature of these sanctions be and how will they impact the energy markets?
The Eight Brewing Sanctions Against Russia
Since this is a two-part question, today I’m going to address the likely nature of the sanctions. And on Tuesday, I’ll suggest the best strategies for dealing with their impact.
Now assuming that Putin does not blink on Crimea (my initial expectation at least), a series of moves are certain to come from the West. That process begins in earnest today with the EU convening an emergency session at its headquarters in the Belgian capital.
But addressing the nature of sanctions today starts with a dose of reality. Despite widespread European criticism, bordering on outright condemnation of the Russian move into Crimea, this is not likely to be another “Charge of the Light Brigade.”
I’m referring to the fateful British cavalry attack against an entrenched Russian artillery position in October 1854. It took place during the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War and is immortalized in Tennyson’s poem. It remains one of the best examples of military valor resulting from a profound miscalculation.
In this case, the economic response to our current “Crisis in Crimea” will certainly be far more tempered. There will be an initial telegraphing of intent from the EU, one that will require a full sign off from the U.S. and approval from a beleaguered interim government in Kiev.
That’s why both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Andrii Deshchytsia, Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, first traveled to Paris yesterday and then to Brussels last evening for today’s EU session.
But make no mistake: The sanctions will increase in severity the longer Russia attempts to increase its presence. That makes the sanctions regime an expanding one.
These are the eight elements I expect to be in the first expression of a combined EU-US response:
- A more formal commitment for an aid package to Ukraine; $15 billion has already been pledged by the EU to go along with $1 billion in loan guarantees from the U.S.;
- Suspension of joint military activities with Russia;
- Suspension of the G8 meeting scheduled for Sochi (the site of the recently completed Olympics in Russia);
- A freeze of designated Ukrainian bank accounts in Europe;
- A demand that Russian natural gas deliveries to Europe across all transport venues remains uninterrupted — some 60% of those imports move by the Ukrainian throughput pipeline system; this would be combined with a demand that Russian deliveries to Ukraine remain unaffected;
- An increased difficulty in — or outright prohibition of — visa approvals for travel to Europe and America by Russian officials;
- Threats to freeze Russian assets abroad — especially those controlled by Russian energy companies like Gazprom, Rosneft, and even LUKoil;
- Threats to limit Russian access to hard currency banking.
The Detail Behind The Possible Sanctions
Now matters may become more acute from there, should the crisis become more pronounced.
The EU-Russian formal mechanism for dialogue has to remain in place; otherwise, there would be no ongoing means to continue diplomacy. Ad hoc approaches are always less desirable as tensions increase.
The first five sanctions are of immediate need. First, Ukraine cannot survive without quick financial support. A collapsing financial picture there merely plays into the hands of a surgical Russian move into Crimea and perhaps Eastern Ukraine (also heavily populated by Russian-ethnic and Russian-speaking Ukrainians).
After all, the increasingly difficult economic situation in the country was the key reason Viktor Yanukovych, a Moscow-leaning president, was elected by Ukrainians the last time out in free and open balloting.
The next two merely reflect what either the U.S. has done already (suspend joint military activities) or has been expressed by several EU foreign ministers (suspending the next G8). Remember, the G8 used to be the G7 and comprises the principal industrial global powers. The initial seven countries brought Russia into the fraternity; they can always kick it out.
Number four may not be initially obvious, but is a very important statement to struggling Ukrainians. Corruption has been the main problem since independence. To allow the escaping former president and his cronies to profit sends the wrong message to the population they callously left behind.
The next is the major concern throughout Europe. Russia could suspend gas flows, as it did in two previous disagreements with Ukraine. As it happens, spring is hitting nicely these days in the UK, with warm weather. But that gas is essential to industry throughout Europe and that remains basic to employment, markets, and a weak economic recovery.
Now the only grounds Moscow would have to suspend gas deliveries is the failure of Ukraine to pay and claims that Kiev is syphoning off volume meant for transport to Europe. After all, that was the charge last time the flow was interrupted.
Given these problems in the past, Kiev agreed to pay in advance for gas consignments from Russian Gazprom. The pricing in these long-term contracts is determined by a basket of crude oil and oil products. They also have a take-or-pay provision.
The pricing means the gas costs more as crude oil prices increase. The second requires that Ukraine buy a minimum amount each month (usually 70% to 75% of the contracted amount) or pay as if they had. Kiev has been regularly avoiding this latter element and Gazprom has not made an issue of it. Now, of course, all bets are off. Moscow will be taking a hard line.
In addition to everything else, providing immediate financial assistance to Ukraine guarantees that contracted Russian gas consignments will continue. And that is as necessary for the European countries meeting today in Brussels as it is for the government in Kiev.
The sixth, restricting travel to Europe and the U.S. for Russian officials can be rapidly introduced, since visas are required and those can be coordinated and controlled by the governments.
Of course, that will be reciprocated by Moscow and more broadly than simply public officials. If the crisis persists, you should probably delay any vacations in Mother Russia. The visa hoops you would have to negotiate will become more than an inconvenience.
The last two comprise the real teeth of any economic sanctions and would signal a serious confrontation with Russia. Freezing corporate assets would certainly constitute a noticeable ratcheting up of the conflict with Moscow doing the same on their side.
The net damage, however, would be worse for Russia. And it would be a decided negative for foreign stockholders in Russian energy companies. Gazprom and Rosneft, the Russian-state controlled natural gas and crude oil companies, are available via depository receipts abroad. LUKoil is the largest privately-held oil company in Russia and is widely held by foreign investors.
A likely Kremlin response would be to freeze or even confiscate foreign holdings in Russia. This will have a bigger impact in Europe, where joint ventures between corporations and Russian companies are more pronounced. But there will be a more limited effect on selected American entities as well.
The Most Serious Sanction of Them All
It is the final sanction on my suggested list that is the most serious. The Russian budget has been under pressure for some time. It requires foreign sales of oil and gas because those sales provide the largest chunk of export revenues.
Virtually all of the exports are dollar-denominated, as are almost all oil and gas trade worldwide. Restricted access to foreign banking makes currency transfers more difficult and increases the cost of doing an essential business for Russia.
Moscow has claimed that it can set up alternative arrangements with trading partners using other currencies. While possible, this significantly increases costs and reduces revenues. It is inconvenient and places a new transfer expense into the calculation of prices and return.
Don’t assume this will bring Russia to its knees anytime soon. Heavy capital access sanctions have long been imposed on Iran’s far weaker economy, and the government has not collapsed, nor has civil war erupted.
Then there are the political developments inside Ukraine itself. Kiev has promised new elections to legitimize a post-Yanukovych government. That would make the transfer of power democratic.
Yet, using the same logic, the Russian position will be enhanced… and soon. There is a referendum scheduled for Crimea later this month. The heavily Russian-ethnic Crimean people will certainly choose more autonomy and a closer relationship with Moscow. And that will also be a democratic statement of popular intent.
Such developments will probably mean the current situation will be “resolved” by an evolving Ukrainian federalism, one in which Crimea will have more independence and Russia more leverage moving forward. There will be the reality of a permanent presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet on Crimean territory.
That guarantees the underlying crisis continues without Russia having to formally annex any territory. And what happens in Crimea may portend similar developments in other Russian leaning areas of Eastern Ukraine.
What we need to do now is insulate our energy investments from these waves of geopolitics. That will be the topic in the next issue of OEI.