“A Russian invasion to Ukraine seems more and more probable day after day.”
This phrase was initially written as we started to prepare this article. Time ended up confirming the worst. The conflict escalated quickly, and, on the 24th of February, Russia invaded Ukraine. This is one of the worst disputes in Europe since 1945.
In this article, we do not aim at exploring the history and motivations of the conflict. Instead, we focus on the potential economic impact of this crisis for Europe. It is important here to mention that the EU/NATO condemn the Russian military action and are providing military supplies to Ukraine. This way we can understand the motivations behind the sanctions and the importance of the commercial trading patterns between these countries.
Ukraine and the EU
The EU is Ukraine’s largest trading partner, accounting for more than 40% of its trade in 2019. Total trade between EU and Ukraine reached €43,3 bn in 2019.
Ukraine exports to the EU amounted to €19.1 bn in 2019. The main Ukraine exports are raw materials (iron, steel, mining products, agricultural products), chemical products and machinery. This is a considerable increase of 48,5% since 2016. The EU exports to Ukraine amounted to over €24.2 bn in 2019. The main EU exports to Ukraine include machinery and transport equipment, chemicals, and manufactured goods. EU exports to Ukraine have been subject to a similar impressive increase since 2016 of 48,8%.
Russia and the EU
In 2020, Russia was the fifth largest partner for EU exports of goods (4.1 %) and the fifth largest partner for EU imports of goods (5.6 %). Among EU Member States, Germany was both the largest importer of goods from and the largest exporter of goods to Russia in 2020. China is the largest Russia trading partner.
Over time the trade balance between Russia and EU has been getting closer to zero due to the decrease in imports from Russia while the exports remained steady. The balance has been always negative but is now closer to zero than ever before.
The more meaningful exported commodity from Russia is mineral fuels and mineral oils followed by pearls, iron, and steel. Russia also represents around 40% of Europe’s gas, being the biggest gas supplier, and for 26% of EU’s oil imports, crude oil and coal delivered through a sprawling pipeline network. This is one of the main points giving Russia bargaining power over EU. On the counterpart, the EU is the largest investor in Russia.
The Russian secret weapon
Oil (and gas) are the oil of the gears of today’s economies. No different is the case for the European machine which needs to maintain lubrification amid a period of rising oil and gas prices and rising inflation (partly driven by the increase in the price of these commodities). In addition, it needs to do all of that while attempting to punish a nation, which supplies around 35% of its oil and gas.
The networks of oil and gas pipelines from Russia to Europe are extensive. Main pipelines include the Yamal-Europe which travels by land across other countries and into Germany and Nord Stream 1 which crosses the Baltic Sea directly to Germany. As of recently, flows of oil from Russia have been slow. Adding to this, Europe has had a winter with especially weak wind which has made its renewable energy production weaker and its energy reliance on oil and gas bigger. Oil reserves are at low levels, all of which is contributing to higher energy prices. These high energy prices give Mr. Putin an ability to exert significant leverage on Europe with a single turning of the tap.
By its very nature, energy reliance is something that is slow to adjust: it takes time to build more diverse energy infrastructure. And, as it stands now, short-term options which may include obtaining oil and gas from other places such as pipelines from Norway (although infrastructure capacity there seems to be already near the maximum), or from the pipeline in the Adriatic Sea or the pipeline through Turkey. Switching to more usage of coal is also a potential option. The EU also has plans to deal with an oil and gas supply emergency and alleviate some of its impact.
As of the 22nd of February, the approval process of a new pipeline – Nord Stream 2, which has been criticized for contributing to more European energy dependence on Russia – has been halted following the recent actions of Russia with regards to Ukraine.
On the same day, Mr. Putin remarked that Russia planned to continue the supply of oil and gas to the markets without interruptions. Still, this remains as one of the biggest weapons that Putin has in this conflict over the EU.
The EU/NATO Economic sanctions to Russia
As a way to punish Russia from moving forward with the invasion of its neighboring country, and even looking to possibly cause a de-scalation of Russian military actions, EU/NATO applied economic sanctions.
Some of the first measures aimed at putting an immediate stop to the newly installed Nord Stream 2 pipeline, targeting “Russia where it hurts the most” given that it’s a big exporter of energy to the EU. Furthermore, the EU, the UK and the US have gone ahead with blacklisting specific individuals and companies with close ties to the governing. Adding to that, the US have acted upon its threat against Russia’s government debt by blocking the county’s access US capital and financial markets, effectively “cutting it off from western financing”, as per President Biden’s words.
A second package of sanctions was announced later that included actions on the connection to the US financial system for Russia’s largest financial bank, Sberbank (holds nearly one-third of Russia’s banking sector assets); sanctions on Russia’s second-largest financial institution, VTB Bank (holds nearly one-fifth of Russia’s banking sector assets); similar full-blocking sanctions on Bank Otkritie, Sovcombank OJSC, and Novikombank and dozens of its subsidiaries; New debt and equity restrictions on 13 critical Russian financial entities; Additional full-blocking sanctions on Russian elites and their family members and individuals “who have enriched themselves at the expense of the Russian state”; Two dozen Belarusian individuals and entities were also sanctioned for supporting the attack on Ukraine; Russia’s military and defense ministry restricted from buying nearly all US items and items produced in foreign nations using certain US-origin software, technology, or equipment; Defense, aviation, and maritime technology subject to Russia-wide restrictions aimed at choking off Moscow’s import of tech goods.
Later, a major sanction was applied by excluding a selected group of Russian banks from the SWIFT global payment system. Swift has a total of 291 Russian members that represent 1,5% of the messages sent in the platform. This new sanction was announced together with the blocking of Russia Central Bank assets.
The impact of these sanctions does not stay restricted to Russia. Europe is in the front row of potential losers as a side effect of the sanctions. Most of the losses are tied to the energy dependency of some European countries to Russia. Other commodities that are exported by Russia will also likely see an increase in price. This side-effect is especially important given the rampant inflation in the Eurozone and US, contributing to further price increases and pressuring policy makers.
Moreover, in terms of sanctions covering the banking and financial sector, those with subsidiaries operating on Russian soil and/or with close financial ties would also fare badly under these conditions, with once again Europe as the most affected one, particularly Italy, France and Austria, being the most exposed international lenders to Russia.
Effect on financial markets
The uncertainty that surrounds the whole conflict is being reflected in all major international financial markets which have been quite volatile in the past weeks, driven by multiple factors including geopolitical risk.
The invasion of Ukraine by Russia caused an initial panic in risk assets, including European and US equities whose main indices started the day down more than 2 or 3%. They ended up recovering intraday, with Nasdaq index closing the day up more than 1%. Also, the day saw a strong dollar (risk-off asset) and a rally in bonds. On the other side we saw the Russian Stock Market index plunging as much as 50% intraday, a weak Rubble and bond spreads exploding up for Russian debt. Commodities also rallied higher, namely oil.
This conflict recalls some of the darkest times in European history which has lived an extended period of peace. The true cost of this conflict goes well beyond the economic cost and is centered mainly around the lives of those fighting in this conflict. The side-effects caused on European countries by the sanctions seem to be the lowest price possible to defend democracy and liberty from those who want to take it from us.
Sources: CNN, European Commission, Politico, Reuters
Scientific revision: Patrícia Cruz