MacroScope

Secession vote looms

 

Despite Vladimir Putin’s apparent attempt at rapprochement, pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine insist their Sunday referendum on secession will take place, a move which could lead to civil war.

More signs of concern from Washington last night with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urging U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to press Kiev to begin “direct, equitable dialogue” with its restive regions. In turn, Ukraine’s acting president and prime minister proposed a “round table” drawing in political forces and civil groups from all regions with international mediators helping out.

Putin’s motives are, as usual, opaque though it could be he hopes to avoid a third round of western sanctions – which would have to be much tougher – by calling on the separatists to suspend their vote on independence.

Washington and the EU have set any disruption of Ukraine’s May 25 national election as their red line. Putin has belatedly given rhetorical support to that vote. Today, Russia and Ukraine marks the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, a potent day. Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said he suspected Moscow was planning some form of “skirmish” to discredit Kiev.

All this and more will be discussed by Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Francois Hollande today when they meet in the German seaside town of Sassnitz in the German Chancellor’s constituency. They are due to talk to the press at 1500 GMT.

A question of gas

A Ukrainian soldier sits on top of an APC at a checkpoint outside the city of Slaviansk

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in Washington for talks with Barack Obama after Europe and the United States imposed wider sanctions on Russia.

Obama is already looking ahead to a third round of measures and has hinted at impatience with Europe, saying there had to be a united front if future sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy were to have real bite. At home, the Republicans are accusing him of weakness so will he put pressure on Merkel to move ahead in a way that the European Union has shown it is entirely unready to, at least yet?

The east of Ukraine remains in turmoil with pro-Russian separatists, who have seized civic buildings and police stations in a number of cities and towns, saying Ukrainian forces had launched a big operation to retake the eastern town of Slaviansk. That would mark the first significant military response from the government in Kiev.

Will sanctions bite?

Financial markets may view the latest sanctions against Russia as feeble, but the reaction from Moscow – Vladimir Putin threatened to reconsider Western participation in energy deals and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said they were the work of weak politicians – suggests otherwise.

Russia’s top oil producer, Rosneft, will release first-quarter financial results after its boss and close Putin ally Igor Sechin was put on the U.S. sanctions list. Yesterday, energy giant Gazprom – whose chief escaped censure – said further Western sanctions over Ukraine could disrupt its gas exports to Europe and hit its business and shares.

The International Monetary Fund will report on its regular mission to Russia. On Tuesday, the Fund said it was preparing to cut its growth forecast for the second time in a month. Many are now talking about a recession this year and capital outflows exceeded $60 billion in the first quarter.

To QE or not to QE?

ECB Vice-President Vitor Constancio testifies to the European Parliament prior to attending the IMF Spring meeting in Washington at the back end of the week along with Mario Draghi and other colleagues. Jens Weidmann, Yves Mersch and Ewald Nowotny also speak today.

There has undoubtedly been a change in tone from the ECB, which is now openly talking about printing money if inflation stays too low for too long (no mention of deflation being the required trigger any more). Even Bundesbank chief Weidmann has done so.

Last week, Draghi made it sound as if really serious thought was being given to how to do it. He raised the prospect of buying private sector assets, rather than government bonds as other central banks have. The question is whether he is trying to talk the euro down or whether the central bank is now more alarmed, and therefore deadly serious.

Last-ditch talks on Crimea

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet in London, a last chance by the look of it to make diplomatic headway before Sunday’s Crimean referendum on joining Russia which the West says is illegal.

Kerry said he would present “a series of options that are appropriate in order to try to respect the people of Ukraine, international law, and the interests of all concerned” and that sanctions would be imposed against Moscow if the referendum went ahead.

A full NATO meeting will take place in Brussels with the Russian and Ukrainian ambassadors invited. There is no sign yet of Vladimir Putin coming to the negotiating table.

Sanctions loom for Russia

The European Union, as we exclusively reported yesterday, has agreed on a framework for sanctions against Russia, including travel restrictions and asset freezes, which goes further than many expected. The list of targeted individuals is still being worked on but will be ready for the bloc’s foreign ministers to look at on Monday.

Angela Merkel will speak to the German Bundestag about the standoff with Russia. Merkel has been cautious about imposing anything too tough as she tries to convince Vladimir Putin to agree to a “contact group” that would reopen communications between Moscow and Kiev. But yesterday she said measures would be imposed next week – after a Crimean referendum on joining Russia which the West says is illegal – unless diplomatic progress is made.

There is no sign of Vladimir Putin coming to the negotiating table and no question of western force being deployed. In Washington, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said his government was ready to negotiate over Moscow’s concerns for the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea – a possible diplomatic avenue? The U.N. Security Council will discuss the crisis in an open meeting later.

Odds on Britain leaving EU shift again

Kiev has appealed for Western help to stop Moscow annexing Crimea, where a referendum on joining Russia will be held on Sunday. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk will take that message to Washington and the United Nations.

The West says the referendum is illegal. U.S. lawmakers are preparing sanctions against Russia and European Union leaders could impose penalties, such as bans on visas for key Russian officials, as early as Monday if Vladimir Putin does not come to the negotiating table. There is no sign that he will and there is no question of western force being deployed.

Germany’s Angela Merkel is in Warsaw for talks with Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Poland has been pressing for more aggressive action while Germany – with its deep economic and energy ties to Russia – is more reluctant. But it appears the EU is moving closer to imposing sanctions.
Ed Miliband, leader of Britain’s opposition Labour party, has stated in today’s FT that he would only hold an EU referendum if there was a new transfer of power from London to Brussels.

Marathon banking union talks

Shots were fired at an international team of monitors in Crimea over the weekend, violence flared in Sevastopol as thousands staged rallies and Angela Merkel, who perhaps has the most receptive western ear to Vladimir Putin, rebuked him for supporting a referendum on Ukraine’s southern region joining Russia. But in truth we’re not much further forward or backwards in this crisis.

The West from Barack Obama on down has said the referendum vote next Sunday is illegal under international law but it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle if Ukraine’s southern region chooses to break away. The best guess – but it is only a guess – is that barring an accidental sparking of hostilities, there is not much percentage in Russia putting its forces in Crimea onto a more aggressive footing in advance of the vote.

Euro zone finance ministers meet and are joined by their non-euro counterparts for an Ecofin on Tuesday. They have the mammoth task of finalizing everything on banking union that was set out in principle by their leaders at a December summit, since when not much has happened.

Unsterilised ECB?

Foreign ministerial talks in Paris yesterday made little progress on Ukraine. Russia rejected Western demands that its forces in Crimea should return to their bases and its foreign minister refused to recognise his Ukrainian counterpart. Moscow continues to assert that the troops that have seized control of the Black Sea peninsula are not under its command. The West is pushing for international monitors to go in.

Today, at least some of the focus switches to Brussels where EU leaders will hold an emergency summit with a twin agenda of how to help the new government in Kiev and possible sanctions against Russia. On the latter, Europe has appeared more reticent than Washington not least because of its deep financial and energy ties, none more so than Germany and Britain.

The bloc yesterday offered Ukraine’s new government 11 billion euros in financial aid over the next two years, contingent on it reaching a deal with the IMF. It will also freeze the assets of ousted president Viktor Yanukovich and 17 others seen as culpable for violation of human rights – around 80 people were killed in the capital last month as they protested against Yanukovich’s rule. Kiev caused some market wobbles by saying it would look at restructuring its foreign currency debt.

Jaw jaw not war war, hopefully

The end of Russian military exercises near the Ukrainian border and Vladimir Putin’s statement that force would only be used as a very last resort seemed to have taken some of the tension out of this crisis but the situation remains on a knife edge.

Moscow chose to test fire an intercontinental ballistic missile though Washington said it had been notified of plans to do so before the standoff in Crimea blew up. And there is always the possibility of conflict being triggered inadvertently.

Yesterday, a Russian soldier fired three volleys of shots over the heads of unarmed Ukrainian servicemen who marched towards their aircraft at a military airfield surrounded by Russian troops near Sevastopol.