Historian Adam Tooze examines the reality of Russian sanctions — and their potential blowback.
The current sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and Europe are unprecedented — and put all of the nations involved into uncharted and risky economic territory.
So says Columbia University professor Adam Tooze. Tooze is the author of Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy, and writes the newsletter Chartbook, which is published on Substack. In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, he offers an in-depth and far-reaching analysis of where the sanctions may be driving the world economy.
While the US portion of the sanctions is relatively small, with immediate repercussions likely limited to our energy and food sectors, the impact on the global economy may be far more serious and long-lasting. For example, shipping and commodity markets will be hard-hit, with painful consequences for low-income countries, particularly in the Global South.
Russia, the intended target of the sanctions, is already feeling the effects on its currency reserves and debt structure, but Tooze notes that these are being somewhat offset by its continuing sales of oil and natural gas to Western Europe.
As for China, Tooze explains that Beijing once looked to Russia as an ally — and even partner — in its economic battles with the US and the West. Now, it may turn out that Russia simply becomes another of China’s dependent “client states.”
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Every day we see the horrible and powerful pictures of the ground war in Ukraine. Cities like Mariupol, Kiev, Lviv are becoming etched into the history of war. But there’s another war going on. It’s being fought, not on the ground, but in the world of banks and petrodollars and yuans and rubles.
When commentators talk about how this war will change the world order, they’re not necessarily talking about following the missiles or about the geography of land but rather about following the money. Perhaps never in the history of warfare has macroeconomics played such a central role. Both the sanctions and the economic interests of nations are shaping not just the economies of the combatants, but globalization and the free flow of money around the world is impacting what positions nations take, and how the world might be changed when the guns of March come to an end.
To best understand this, I am joined by Adam Tooze. Adam holds the Shelby Cullum Davis chair of history at Columbia University, where he serves as director of the European Institute. He was named by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the top global thinkers of the decade, and he’s the author of the recent book Shutdown: How COVID Shook the World Economy. His substack newsletter, Chartbook, is a must-read for anyone concerned about the global economic order. It is my pleasure to welcome Adam Tooze here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Adam, thanks so much for joining us.
Adam Tooze: Glad to be with you.
Jeff: Well, it’s great to have you here. When we talk about the sanctions that are in place right now and the degree and scope of them, which are even ongoing as we speak, are we in uncharted territory here? Do we have any examples of anything in the past from an economic perspective that is as significant as this in terms of the global economic framework and the impact that sanctions can have?
Adam: If we look at sanctions regimes, as opposed to just flat out war economies, this is a particularly extreme case. So some elements of the package that have been applied to Russia are fairly generic standard sanctions mechanisms. You target oligarchs, you attack particular banks, you try and prevent the import to Russia of various tech products, for instance. America’s measures against Russia’s oil are also part of that common repertoire.
With regard to Iran and Venezuela and North Korea, we’ve even seen comprehensive measures against central banks, which are the really dramatic measure that was taken against Russia early on, but to apply that to Russia really is game-changing because Russia’s not — Iran is a very large country, let’s be clear, but its economy is significantly smaller than that of Russia, and it was already marginal to the global economy in the way that Russia absolutely wasn’t.
So to sanction a country with, depending on how you count it, somewhere between $490 and $600 billion worth of foreign reserves held in June in absolutely good standing, central bank to central bank in the Fed or the European central banking system, this is very dramatic. It is the sort of thing that you do to an antagonist in war, and so to some extent, even the moniker “sanctions” is a little misleading because sanctions to my mind, at least, is something you apply to a state as it were to punish it for misdeeds. Whereas what we’ve in effect done is taken the side of the Ukraine in an ongoing war, and we are applying to Russia, a very large economy, very radical measures.
Jeff: How much more can we do? What have we held back on, and what are the things that could exacerbate even what we’ve done thus far?
Adam: It isn’t really on the American side that we’ll need to look for that. The bottom line is that America’s economic and financial relations with Russia are pretty small scale. They’re not terribly important for Russia, and they’re vanishingly tiny from the American point of view. That isn’t to say that there aren’t big Russian companies, and they have financial dealings in dollars, and those run, some of them, through American banks, but America doesn’t buy a lot of Russian stuff, and Russia is — at least since the Crimea-Ukraine crisis — has also avoided buying things from America, if it can possibly avoid to do so.
The real issue here is all about Europe because Europe is the major customer for Russia’s energy exports, which are its major hard currency earner. There’s nothing being done there at all. From the very beginning, it was clear that Europe was going to exempt Russian energy imports. Why? Because they’re simply vital to the ordinary functioning of the European economies.
Both Italy and Germany are hugely dependent specifically on Russian gas for a large part of their domestic heating, cooking and electricity generation. They don’t have, either of them, adequate LNG capacity that would allow them to import LNG, and there isn’t enough LNG in the world economy anyway. They have held back, and in fact, the German, they’re not just shy either. The German government has been quite robust recently in making the case that they aren’t going to adopt immediate sanctions on that front.
That doesn’t mean that Germany isn’t going to move away longer term from dependence on Russia. They’ve done a big deal with Qatar to take gas from them. They are going to build LNG terminals so that they can import from all over the world, but that is a matter of months or, indeed, years. They so far have held back on a sort of the thing that would be a really decisive blow.
A lot of the action has in fact been, then, private companies independently deciding so-called self sanctioning. The Ikeas, the McDonald’s of this world, frankly, every major global corporate name with a few exceptions has decided to pull out.
Jeff: Given all of these companies that have pulled out, how easy will it be, if at all, for them to get back in once there is potentially some kind of resolution to this?
Adam: It depends very much on how they’ve handled it. Some are just stopping new investments. Some are trying to sell their stakes. The European oil companies are trying to sell their stakes. Certainly, Shell and BP are. That won’t be easy, and the Russians won’t make it easy on them. In accounting terms, they’ll almost certainly just write off those stakes, and book them as losses.
McDonald’s on the other hand, for instance, which is a huge employer in Russia, 65,000 people on its payroll in Russia, is continuing to pay its staff wages and salaries. That is the kind of position which sets you up in the event of a resumption of something more like normal relations to just restart the business. Ikea, likewise, I think has guaranteed its staff pay and salaries for the next three months.
They’re not ending their association with Russia, but they are putting it on hold, and they’re doing it at a considerable cost to themselves because they’re proper corporate citizens, and they recognize their obligation to their Russian staff who, whatever their attitudes towards Putin and his regime, cannot really be personally blamed for what’s going on. They are setting themselves up for the possibility of a resumption, I would say.
Jeff: Looking at this from a macroeconomic point of view, what are the potential long-term impacts of these sanctions, even after the war is over.
Adam: Well, it’s difficult to see how we go back to normal on the finance side. The thing about sanctions is they’re very difficult to undo as we see with Iran and Venezuela. A political head steam builds up around them so that ending them requires you to acknowledge in a very formal way the restoration of normal conditions. It’s very hard to see how we do that with a Russian government still headed by Mr. Putin.
Those are going to be long term, and that will simply be very bad for the Russian economy. There’s no doubt about that, and the Russian economy is not a huge part of the world economy, but it’s non-trivial — one or two, I think it’s around about 2% of global GDP, something like that. Its growth will then fractionally be slower, so there’ll be a dampening effect. The more immediate impact really, as much through the war itself as through the sanctions, but the two together have created this shock effect is to prices for energy and key commodities, notably foodstuffs. So grain, maize, sunflower oil, all of which are key to the diets, especially of lower income countries in Asia and the Middle East.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the commodities and particularly wheat. We’re going into what’s considered the planting season there. If that doesn’t happen in the midst of this, the impact could be even broader.
Adam: Russia is a big energy supplier, about 10% of the oil market globally, but it’s a dominant supplier of wheat, especially if you treat Ukraine and Russia as a bloc, which is, in a sense, it’s the political issue here, so I don’t mean to imply anything by that, but if you look at the way their export terminals are set up in the Black Sea, they are, as it were, a combine. Taking Russia and Ukraine out of the global food chain is really dramatic in its impact.
We lose 28%, probably, of global exported supply. That’s huge. It’s not global production because huge producers like China are largely self sufficient, ditto for the U.S., but for the bit that’s traded into the global market, so it’s the feed countries, which can’t produce for themselves, Russia and Ukraine really are critical. There’s a variety of different things going on here. These aren’t sanction effects because sanctions for humanitarian reasons, American sanctions anyway, exempt food and medication.
The fact, though, is you’ve got a war going on across that southern strip of Ukraine. You can’t farm, and you can’t use the grain terminals from which large-scale bulk shipments happen. Furthermore, because there’s been at least one sinking of a vessel in the war zone, the major insurers, crucially, the London Lloyd’s insurance market, become wary of insuring traffic, and if you can’t ensure the cargo in the ship, you can’t do the business.
Then finally what’s happened is that as prices have surged, the finances of the brokerages that mediate between sellers and buyers and that take the risk of the shipments in between — the merchants if you like, that mediate this deal — their finances have come under huge strain because they’re dealing with much higher prices and much more volatile prices, and that makes it much more difficult to get credit and to then buy the financial derivatives, which are essentially a form of insurance on financial risk.
There is a real risk of some of the major global commodity markets just breaking down altogether. Nickel is one that has already basically failed, but I gather the big trading houses are worried also about the supply of diesel to especially low-income markets, which will just be first to be cut off in the event of serious financing pressures.
Jeff: How does that play out in terms of the long-term economic consequences, particularly in other parts of the world that will suffer the pain from this?
Adam: I think long term’s a little hard to tell at this point, but it’s also salutary to remind oneself that the long run is a series of short runs, and right now, what we’re dealing with is an almighty shock. From the point of view of low-income countries, and in fact, it’s something akin to a perfect storm because they are seeing three blows. They’re seeing the energy prices go up, and many of them are energy importers, and they import energy for all sorts of things, but oil and diesel, for instance, in low-income countries is widely used in small-scale generators to generate electricity. Or if you can’t import diesel, you can’t run your tractor anymore, and so agriculture’s impacted.
Then in urban areas, like Egypt, for instance, a huge food importer, a grain importer, the cost of living for the urban masses, the low-income poor Egyptians will surge and one of the precipitators of the Arab spring in 2011 was rising food prices. The third thing they’re being squeezed by is the old story that we were all fussing about a couple of months ago, which is inflation and the decision by the big central banks, notably the Fed and the ECB, to begin raising interest rates.
Those ripple through the world economy and, of course, squeeze the lower-income debtors hardest. If you are a import-dependent, highly indebted low-income country, you’re being squeezed three ways at once. If the IMF and the World Bank were worried about a global low-income debt crisis the last year, they have even more reason to be worried now.
Jeff: Coming back to Russia, what are the dangers in terms of the pressure that was put on Russia’s central bank and the potential for Russia to default on some of its obligations, and how does that play out?
Adam: The central bank measures were as dramatic as they were because a) they went unannounced in a sense they couldn’t be announced because if we had announced that the central bank might be in the crosshairs of sanctions, it would’ve caused an immediate panic in the foreign exchanges and would in a sense have been a sort of declaration of financial war by us on Russia, even before Russia invaded Ukraine.
We withheld those measures until they were announced, but they are very blunt force. Very unlike the sanctions targeted sanctions on oligarchs going after their yachts and stuff because when you hit the central bank, it affects the entire currency of the country, and that hits everyone because it affects the price of imports crucially in a country like Russia, and so it drives the cost of living up for ordinary Russians.
It also induced a general panic in the financial system and caused bank runs, notably on Sberbank, the biggest bank. So big that half of Russians are thought to have accounts with it, and it’s caused the Russians essentially to shut their financial markets now for weeks on end. We don’t really know what the fair market value of the ruble would be because it hasn’t been openly traded now for weeks.
That is the impact of those sanctions. It’s very savage. The default issue is really to a degree a bit of a charade, to be honest, because Russia has ample foreign currency to pay its debts. It’s still earning every single day from European purchases of oil and gas easily enough money to service its debt. Russia’s debt was quite widely held by Western investors because it was considered such high-quality debt because Russia has such gigantic export potential.
The reason why they’re talking about a default is the same reason they’re now demanding that Europeans pay for gas in rubles. It’s a form of counterpressure. Why should they pay foreign creditors when foreign powers are sanctioning Russia’s central bank, and denying Russia access to its hard currency reserves.
It’s a tit-for-tat measure in a financial war, and to my mind as well, there’s a real ambiguity here about how one should think about those payments to Western investors because it’s one thing to invest your money in building McDonald’s franchises to sell burgers to ordinary Russians. It’s quite another after Crimea, after Ukraine Crisis One, after the first round of sanctions were imposed to calmly look at the bond prospectus from Putin’s government, which includes page after page of red lines, health warnings about the geopolitical risk and then lending a billion dollars in cold blood, which is what these Western creditors did.
They are quite literally bankrolling Putin’s regime with a geopolitical health warning attached to the loan, and it’s not at all obvious to me what we should do or how we should think about the hundreds of millions of dollars which Russia is now apparently determined to actually pay to its creditors because in a sense, their claims on Russia are being honored whilst investors like McDonald’s are just expected to absorb the loss.
Ordinary Russians are just suffering a loss and, of course, the Ukrainians are paying in blood for the aggression of a regime which those Western investors helped to fund. Now money’s fungible, and, of course, they’ll say, “We didn’t give our money for the military machine.” But because it’s fungible, it doesn’t matter. If you provide funding to the Russian state, you are funding a regime of which you knew because it said it in the bond prospectus — the phrases were euphemisms, like “As a result of disagreements about the status of Crimea, investors in this bond should know that the following persons have been sanctioned, and it is conceivable that these sanctions could expand.” And, nevertheless, the money was lent.
Jeff: Is there a point that this goes on so long that it has other consequences that we’re potentially not even seeing yet?
Adam: Oh, absolutely. It’s very early days in this. First of all, the misery in the Ukraine will progressively intensify because I think it’s increasingly obvious that the Russians reckon that their best way of achieving something that they can claim as a victory is siege warfare against Ukraine. That was their practice in Chechnya in the ’90s. That was the sort of war that they helped to support in Syria from 2015 onwards. I think that’s where we’re going, so things are going to get much worse.
The drama that will unfold from that is not just in the besieged cities, which will be horrible, but it will also be mass flight, and we’re already seeing that. Refugee numbers in the last couple of weeks in Europe are staggering. It’s up there with the worst exodus from Afghanistan in the early ’80s and from Venezuela at the height of the crisis unleashed by the Maduro and Chavez regimes.
We’re talking three-plus million people having left the country in a matter of weeks, and that number is going to rapidly rise. The total number of displaced people in Ukraine right now is pushing a quarter of the population, and that will progressively accelerate. That’s huge, and it will have a ripple effect across the entire region, and it will be a huge challenge for Europe to get its act together and to address this. It’s a huge challenge because we know that they collectively failed the last time.
The Germans were the standout exception, but even in Germany, it caused a huge political upheaval, but there was no common European response to the Syrian crisis back in 2015/2016, and so Europe does face a huge challenge. At a rough guess, the costs of providing German level of accommodation for refugees runs to about $10 billion per million people per year. You could be looking at your bill of $100 billion for this refugee flow in the next few months.
Europe’s rich, it can absorb that. That’s the sort of money that you can pull together, but to do it in a very complex quasi-federal system with huge complex bargaining that goes on, that will be a vast challenge and will create very considerable dislocation and, of course, mass misery to the people involved.
Jeff: Talking about the people involved, you’ve also written in Chartbook about the refugees themselves and their access to money and their ability to take money out of the country and what value that money has. Talk about that.
Adam: It almost feels frivolous and banal to talk about these kind of issues in the context of the horror that we’re seeing in the besieged cities, but yes, when people flee, of course, they’re defined by dispossession. That’s what it means to be a refugee is to have lost your home. The question is: What can you take with you? You can take the clothes on your back and a bag, and there are these, as we all know, these incredibly touching scenes.
We’ve seen it on America’s border with Central American and Mexican migrants. People come with the same accoutrements that families come with all over the world, but they also, of course, need the means to support themselves, and precisely if they don’t want to become immediately dependent on charity, they need to be able to bring some of their resources, some of their financial resources, and money is supposed to enable you to do that. That’s what it’s supposed to do. That’s supposed to be a store of value, a means of exchange.
The desperate Ukrainians are trying to bring their currency to the West, and it poses really quite fundamental dilemmas because if you allow the Ukrainian currency to be freely traded and to be fully subject to the tender mercies of the market, it would collapse in value. If you substituted and just simply gave the refugees chunks of euros, that would be an easier way of dealing with this, but you’d effectively be saying we’re giving up on the Ukrainian currency, even whilst the Ukrainian state is fighting for its life.
How do you somehow split the difference here? Clearly what we need is an arrangement under which Ukrainians are permitted to exchange some amount, at least, of their currency into euros or złoty because the vast majority of the refugees are in Poland, and Poland is not part of the euro system, and they do so at a subsidized rate. In other words, not simply what the market would give them, which is a fraction of the exchange rate which the Ukrainian central bank has fixed and a fraction of the exchange rate that people are psychologically prepared for.
In a sense, what we are asking is who is going to bear the cost of cushioning the reality that it isn’t just their homes and their property that they’re losing but their financial stakes.
The financial stakes of Ukrainians are being depreciated and destroyed as well, and that then becomes a fiscal question. It becomes a question for the Polish state, for Europe and the Poles very much to their credit and the Bulgarians and the Romanians are actively working at solutions. They’re able to do that because they are independent monetary systems.
The Polish government, recognizing the crisis, recognizing its role in dealing with this, has generously agreed quotas, if you like, that permit Ukrainians to exchange about $200 to $300 per adult to at least give them a float.
The problem for the wider Europe and for the eurozone is that the ECB has an absolute bar on taking losses on its accounts because that will be tantamount, effectively, to printing money for the purpose of supporting the Ukrainians, and it’s not allowed to print money for any circumstance because the fear was when you create a European Central Bank, it will end up printing money to subsidize the budgets of feckless, and these are north Europeans talking southern Europeans who don’t balance their budgets.
This is the stereotype. It’s a racialized stereotype within Europe, but this hamstrings the ECB now because there’s no doubt that the ECB, like other European institutions, would like to come to the aid of the Ukrainians, but the biggest central bank in Europe can’t act until it gets a guarantee from the national governments of Europe to absorb the loss, and they have to agree on what that would be, and as of earlier this week, anyway, they had not reached that point.
Jeff: The other question in all this is what role China plays and how they’re impacted by all of this, and what role they’ll play going forward.
Adam: Yes, I think, like the rest of us, like the Ukrainians, like every smart analyst I read in Moscow, they’re shocked by what’s happened. No one really, I think they in Beijing any more than in most other places thought Putin was actually going to invade. Then when he did, they didn’t anticipate it becoming the extraordinary drama that it has become on account of the heroic and remarkably effective resistance of the Ukrainians and the incapacity of the Russian forces.
Beijing is facing a situation it just didn’t anticipate facing, and this puts them in a very difficult position. I think they must be profoundly uncomfortable because they thought of Russia as a true strategic complement: its huge territory, massive raw materials aligned with China at least in the extent that they share enemies in the United States and its claims to hegemony in Europe and in East Asia, and all of a sudden, Beijing must be wondering whether they saddled themselves to the new North Korea, much bigger but with far more nukes.
That must be very, very worrying from their point of view. You could say, and some people say, “Oh, well, isn’t Beijing waiting for Russia to fall into its lap?” I can see the logic of that and there’s certainly Russians who fear that that’s what going to happen to them, but I don’t think that was Beijing’s grand plan. I think they genuinely thought they had a potent ally specifically in confronting America, and instead, like it or not, the Biden administration has played this crisis very coolly and is forcing Russia into a very difficult spot. If the aim of the game was to have Russia as a powerful ally against the United States, that has not worked out well for Beijing.
Jeff: Does Russia become essentially a client state to Beijing?
Jeff: We have to see. It’s easy to paint that scenario, and it’s certainly a possibility. It very much depends on what happens next, and we simply don’t know, and it’s very early stages, and I think one thing that Beijing will do is take its sweet time in deciding how really it wants to relate to Russia at this point. It’s clear that relatively speaking, the balance of power shifted in their favor and that also means that they can afford to wait. It’s Russia that has the urgency here now.
As we know from these intelligence sources that the Americans have been assiduously informing the world about, Russia has been asking for help, and we don’t, I think, as yet know how Beijing has responded to that. It isn’t surprising that they have asked because they have interconnected weapons systems. They all live in a interchangeable military universe, Russia and China, so that Russia should turn to them isn’t surprising, but I think we just have to wait to see how Beijing will reply.
Jeff: Coming back to the commodity and food issue and the impact that this is going to have on those low income countries that we talked about before, is this an area where China is going to try and take advantage of that opportunity, not unlike what they’ve done with Belt and Road?
Adam: It could, it might. I find often the Western reading of One Belt, One Road a little one-sided, to be absolutely honest. This idea that it is fundamentally a system for debt imperialism. That’s actually quite seriously contested by many Western scholars of One Belt, One Road who a) don’t think it has that coherent geopolitical intention behind it and b) when you examine the debt terms beyond the scandalizing discourse of some western observers don’t tend to actually find that heavily substantiated in practice.
The Chinese are tough-minded creditors and like to get their money back, but the idea that they’re using this to systematically stake claims to other people’s infrastructure I think should be taken in general with a pinch of salt. That entire narrative originated in a, noncoincidentally, an Indian reporting on a Sri Lankan situation, so put two and two together there, and you see the geopolitical powerplay that’s at stake.
Are they going to exploit this situation? I think it certainly puts them in a position where folks are going to need China in part, but in the sense because they’ll need China not to aggressively step into commodity markets to make the situation worse, and China may very well consider that this is a moment at which they could provide relief on debt. One hopes that they would act in that direction.
They weren’t put to task to a very significant extent during the COVID crisis because the debt relief measures of the Western creditors were so minimal, but broadly speaking, the Chinese did cooperate in that effort. They weren’t stand out in the toughness of the line that they took. It’s imaginable, I think, that in the G20 context, for instance, they would step up as a potential supporter of some multilateral effort to support low income countries. They certainly have as much invested now in those relationships as we do in the West.
Jeff: What do you see finally as the biggest danger that faces the U.S. economy as blowback from all of this?
Adam: I think the impact on the U.S. is relatively modest. I think that’s an important point simply to state. The immediate impact on the U.S. is largely through oil prices, and the illusion of American energy independence is once more exposed by this fact. Thanks to shale, America produces as much oil as it consumes, in fact there’s a slight surplus, but it doesn’t matter because oil prices are set globally. As the saying goes, there’s one big pool of oil, and everyone feeds into it, and everyone sucks from it, and so prices are set globally.
That will be the main impact on the American economy. Food prices, perhaps, as well to an extent will certainly be a boon for American agriculture, but that’s a relatively small part of the American economy, I think, compared to the oil story. That matters in America apart from anything else for political reasons. It’s a huge issue for the Biden administration, especially in a mid-term election year, and it comes on the back of what was already a tightening oil market and rising prices last year. I think that’s the one to watch.
Jeff: Adam Tooze, his substack newsletter is Chartbook. You should read it for lots more information about all of this. Adam, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Adam: Been a pleasure.
Jeff: Thank you. And, thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.