Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama were reportedly engaged in a heated telephone conversation last Thursday when Putin noted in passing that an aircraft had gone down in Ukraine. The tragic crash of the Malaysian airliner in rebel-held eastern Ukraine continues to dominate the headlines, but it is important to remember what agitated Putin and prompted the phone call in the first place — sanctions.
Sanctions against Russia have been the centerpiece of the U.S. response to Putin’s interference in Ukraine. While they primarily have been directed against prominent friends of Putin and their businesses, the underlying target has been a weak Russian economy. The sanctions have definitely found Russia’s Achilles’ heel, and with harsher sanctions looming in the aftermath of flight MA17, Putin is finding it increasingly difficult to craft an effective reply.
Obama had raised the ante for Russia the day before the Malaysian airliner disaster by unexpectedly announcing a new round of sanctions. The designated enterprises included several major Russian banks (Gazprombank, VEB), energy companies (Rosneft, Novatek) and arms manufacturers. They were not, however, the full sectoral sanctions that Putin dreads the most. These would essentially exclude Russia from the international financial system and restrict major technological transfers. Though key Russian banks and energy companies are now prohibited from receiving medium or long-term dollar financing, U.S. companies are not otherwise prohibited from conducting business with them.
But even by hinting as to what sectoral sanctions might look like, Obama has upset Russia’s economic calculations. Obama is often criticized for not backing up the “red lines” that he draws. But in Ukraine, Obama essentially has drawn a “gray line” — demanding Russia take certain actions to end the crisis. No one knows when this gray line is crossed, however. So these new sanctions only heighten the uncertainty — and risk — of doing business in Russia.
The market responded immediately, with dramatic declines in the Russian ruble and the Moscow stock market. In addition, the sanctions only exacerbated an already difficult situation for Russian companies. Syndicated loans for Russian commodities producers are down more than 80 percent over the past six months. The appetite for Russian bonds has also decreased considerably in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis. So the current round of sanctions made a bad situation worse.