MacroScope

How stiff is EU’s resolve?

Russian troops seized two Ukrainian naval bases, including a headquarters in Sevastopol where they raised their flag. Moscow, continuing to insist it does not control the unbadged militia in Crimea, called for a detained Ukrainian navy commander to be freed, which has now happened. Make of that what you will.

Washington is keeping up the rhetorical pressure. Vice President Joe Biden, in Lithuania, said Russia was travelling a “dark path” to political and economic isolation. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is travelling to Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other senior officials. He will move on to Kiev on Friday. 

More potent may be an EU leaders’ summit today and Friday. After subjecting 21 Russians and Crimeans to travel bans and asset freezes, tougher sanctions are already under consideration and minds have also been focused on ending decades of dependence on Russian gas. It’s a long-term project but one that could deal a hammer blow to the Russian economy if it succeeds.

Russian lawmakers scoffed at the paucity of western action. Washington and the EU says tougher measures could follow but to hit where it really hurts – with financial and trade sanctions – looks difficult for Europe with so many vested interests and links with Russia from the bloc’s biggest members to its smallest.

It’s not clear that the EU’s March 6 statement that it would consider financial sanctions if there were “any further steps by the Russian Federation to destabilise the situation in Ukraine” will be pursued soon.

Osborne stakes out election ground with little fiscal leeway

The annual UK budget is always a big set piece but it’s hard to remember one where there have been fewer advance leaks – indicative of a steady-as-she-goes approach by George Osborne.
Having put so much political capital into reducing the deficit, to switch now at a time when the economy is recovering strongly would be politically risky. And with debt falling only slowly there is little fiscal leeway.

That’s not to say this isn’t a big political moment. Yes there is the finance minister’s autumn statement and another budget before May 2015 elections but this is the moment when the narrative for the economy and Britons’ wellbeing is staked out.

So expect a further increase in the threshold at which income tax starts to be paid, to help the poorer, and measures to boost business investment in an attempt to rebalance the economy.
Osborne will also extend his “help to buy” housing scheme, questionable at a time when property prices are rising strongly. On the thrift front, he will announce details of a ceiling on welfare spending.

Putin welcomes Crimea in

Vladimir Putin has told Russia’s Duma that he has approved a draft treaty to bring Ukraine’s Crimea region into Russia and in doing so continues to turn a deaf ear to the West’s sanctions-backed plea to come to the negotiating table.

Overnight, Japan added its weight to the sanctions drive, suspending talks with Moscow on an investment pact and relaxation of visa requirements. EU and U.S. measures have targeted a relatively small number of Russians and Ukrainians but presumably there is scope to go considerably further, particularly if Putin decided to move into eastern Ukraine too.

EU foreign ministers yesterday began discussing how to reduce energy reliance on Russia. That’s a long-term project but one that could deal a hammer blow to the Russian economy if it succeeds.

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.

Banking — union or disunion

EU finance ministers face 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. Last night, the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers made little progress bar agreeing that they needed to agree quickly.

Intractable issues such as who decides when a bank is failing, how a decision is taken to wind down a failing bank, what is the precise role of the European Central Bank, European Commission and European Parliament and how long it will take to build up a fund from bank levies to pay for failing lenders all have to be sorted out.

Plan A was for the fund to be built up over 10 years and then be pooled but critics say that leaves the bloc’s governments exposed for too long.

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.

Putin unmoved by carrots or sticks

Vladimir Putin said this morning Russia and the United States are still far apart over Ukraine. Moscow, he said, could not ignore “illegitimate decisions” imposed on the east and south of the country and calls for help by ethnic Russians there but the two powers should not sacrifice relations over it.

In an hour-long telephone call last night Barack Obama urged Putin to accept the terms of a potential diplomatic solution to the crisis whereby Moscow would keep its military bases in Crimea while respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty. But he also ordered sanctions – including travel bans and freezing of assets in the U.S. – on people responsible for Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine though Putin himself is not on the list.

Obama also said a Crimean referendum on joining Russia, called for 9 days’ time, violated international law.
Meanwhile, Congress passed a $1 billion loan guarantees package for the new government in Kiev. The European Union has already promised some $15 billion over the next two years, contingent on a deal being signed with the IMF.

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.

When is a war not a war?

Is it war if no shots have been fired? The Ukrainians say so but Moscow, its grip on Crimea now pretty much complete, says it is merely protecting its people. The rest of the world and its financial markets watch on very uneasily.

There is virtually no chance of any western military response after Vladimir Putin declared he had the right to invade his neighbour – NATO  expressed “grave concern” but did not come up with any significant measures to apply pressure on. But there will be a diplomatic and economic price to pay.

The rouble tumbled by 2.5 percent at Monday’s open and the central bank has already acted to try and underpin it, raising its key lending rate by 1.5 percentage points although the Russian economy is already in poor shape. The main Russian stock index has plunged by about 9 percent with Gazprom doing worse than that and safe haven German Bund futures have jumped.

Cold War chill over Ukraine

Dramatic twist in the Ukraine saga last night with a conversation between a State Department official and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine posted on YouTube which appeared to show the official, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, deliberating on the make-up of the next government in Kiev.

That led to a furious tit-for-tat with Moscow accusing Washington of planning a coup and the United States in turn saying Russia had leaked the video, which carried subtitles in Russian. A Kremlin aide said Moscow might block U.S. “interference” in Kiev.

Nuland is due to give a news conference today after her visit to Kiev.

Vladimir Putin is likely to meet Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in Sochi as the Winter Olympics get underway. It could be awkward for Yanukovich’s opponents if they look like western pawns.