The sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and Europe for its interventions in Ukraine have worked much faster and inflicted much more damage on the Russian economy than anybody could have expected. The sanctions sought to deny Russian banks and companies access to the international capital markets. The increased damage is largely due to a sharp decline in the price of oil, without which the sanctions would have been much less effective. Russia needs oil prices to be around $100 a barrel in order to balance its budget. (It is now around $55 a barrel.) The combination of lower oil prices and sanctions has pushed Russia into a financial crisis that is by some measures already comparable to the one in 1998.
In 1998, Russia ended up running out of hard currency reserves and defaulting on its debt, causing turmoil in the global financial system. This time the ruble has dropped by more than 50 percent, inflation is accelerating, and interest rates have risen to levels that are pushing the Russian economy into recession. The big advantage Russia has today compared to 1998 is that it still has substantial foreign currency reserves. This has enabled the Russian Central Bank to engineer a 30 percent rebound in the ruble from its low point by spending about $100 billion and arranging a $24 billion swap line with the People’s Bank of China. But only about $200 billion of the remaining reserves are liquid and the crisis is still at an early stage.
In addition to continued capital flight, more than $120 billion of external debt is due for repayment in 2015. Although, in contrast to 1998, most of the Russian debt is in the private sector, it would not be surprising if, before it runs its course, this crisis ends up in a default by Russia. That would be more than what the US and European authorities bargained for. Coming on top of worldwide deflationary pressures that are particularly acute in the euro area and rising military conflicts such as the one with ISIS, a Russian default could cause considerable disruption in the global financial system, with the euro area being particularly vulnerable.
There is therefore an urgent need to reorient the current policies of the European Union toward Russia and Ukraine. I have been arguing for a two-pronged approach that balances the sanctions against…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.