Ged Carroll

Ukraine

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Reading Time: 13 minutes

Its really hard to get your head around the situation playing out in Ukraine. One of the best set of videos that I have seen to try and make sense of what’s going on in Ukraine is done by Chris Cappy. He admits in the last video that his jocular tone is a way of dealing with the horror of it all and his analysis seems to be on point. I have embedded his Ukraine related videos here:

Beyond the horror playing out with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; what will be some of the global impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

I have put down some thoughts on the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine into three buckets:

Ukraine

Short term effects

Bread riots and inflation

The invasion of Ukraine will disrupt the country’s wheat harvest. Ukraine is responsible for 10% of all global wheat production and is a major exporter.

Developing world consumers are already suffering from the rise in food prices. This might be felt especially hard in the Middle East, where the price of bread is often subsidised by the government to help prevent riots. It was one of the factors that drove the ousting of former Egyptian president President Hosni Murbarak as part of the Arab spring series of movements.

There have been past bread riots in other countries like Algeria and Jordan at a time of massive civil disturbances. One of the first impacts of Russian actions in Ukraine may play out with disturbances in the developing world.

Russia is also a wheat exporter, but ironically won’t benefit from the price rise due to long term contracts that it has with China. China previously leased land responsible for 5 percent of wheat production in Ukraine. China had also invested in Ukrainian pork farms.

Oil and gas

The impact on global oil and gas prices has been immediate. Oil prices had been high anyway as the oil industry ramped up and tried to match post-COVID shock supply chains struggle to get back in sync. Sanctions on Russian oil have been implemented by oil traders faster than western governments have implemented them. Taking Russia out as a supplier is likely to drive western customers in a number of directions in the medium and long term. In the short term we may have power and heating shortages. Russia currently doesn’t have pipeline capacity to ship oil and gas to China in the kind of volumes that would compensate for reduced Western demand. So you might see some of that oil being shipped in sanctions busting tankers, again the challenge would be finding ‘ghost boats’ that have capacity.

Western inflation versus China inflation

China has probably worked out the calculus of products that it loses in the short term, versus long term products from Russia as a pariah state at below global prices as Russia won’t have a choice. So we can expect China to benefit from lower inflation inputs than other countries in the short to medium term. It will be inputs from oil and gas to wheat or titanium foam. This gives some Chinese businesses a comparative advantage versus their competitors, particularly western countries.

Western European concerns about energy, particularly running into winter are acute and energy transformation to lower carbon options will take time.

Russian inflation

The rouble has dropped in value by 30 percent as soon as sanctions went in. So one would think that the effect on inflation would be immediate. But you also have multinational companies withdrawing from Russia. In the short term, many products from fast moving consumer goods to clothing and home furnishings will quickly no longer be available. Even smartphone sales of Chinese brand smartphones have plummeted, which gives you and idea of what western sanctions don’t do, the plummeting rouble will do instead.

Many of these multinational companies will no longer be manufacturing in Russia either, which will create a decrease in both supply and demand. So the impact on short term inflation may take a while to become clear. It is likely to impact unemployment as well.

Russian banks and the central bank are extremely capital constrained which will not only affect monetary policy but providing sufficient credit to keep businesses going. What you will see is a brain drain of the educated and the talented as they don’t really have a future at home. Which is why Russian’s have been paying €9,000 for a railway ticket from St Petersburg to Helsinki. Talented Ukrainians are either engaged fighting the Russian army in Ukraine, are internally displaced in western Ukraine or have already left the country.

If Russia goes to martial law then all bets are off in terms of financial damage because that would likely be the least of government’s concerns in terms of maintaining other aspects of control.

Medium term effects

CHIPS Act & strategic capability

The US has looked to promote domestic semiconductor manufacturing through government investment. However inert neon and krypton gas, which is used in the semiconductor manufacturing process is supplied by Ukraine. Russia and the Ukraine were responsible for half of all global production of these gases. This will impact US national security and development of semiconductor manufacturing as a strategic capability.

Neon mirrors shortages of critical materials for western countries that will impact high technologies and engineering using performance materials. Western countries will have to think about how they update their own strategic capacity to make these materials. This covers a wide swathe of materials including:

There has been a steady tempo of voices on the need to have strategic capability in critical areas like lithium and rare earth metals. This will likely be mirrored by China with its five year plans. The degrees of will to achieve strategic independence will dictate the amount of time that it takes to implement.

Innovation

Being cut off from western capability will place two problems on Russian innovation:

Russia has some semiconductor capability, but it is way behind modern manufacturing, so it relies on foreign manufacture.

This all means Russia will be an ideal market for Chinese vendors. Huawei has already been helping Russia with their networking and information security needs. Other Chinese vendors will end up dominating other aspects of Russian technology from automation to smartphone apps. Over time Russia will fall behind and end up being a supplier of raw materials and source of skilled labour for Chinese enterprises. Having a Russian version of WeChat and Weibo with similar censorship would be attractive to the Russian government.

Russia is already behind in semiconductor manufacture, but it might be helped by China’s similarly sanctioned semiconductor companies. Russia has been trying to get self sufficient in products like computer servers, but Chinese chips will be seriously behind the chips that they’ve already had made in Taiwan.

Russia will probably do everything that it can to shield its defence industry from impact. Not only in support of its policy aims, but its one of the few value add sectors where Russia is a peer with China. Otherwise post-Ukraine, Russia’s negotiating position with China would be more akin to China’s relationship with sub-Saharan African countries or Sri Lanka.

Maintenance

Most of the civilian Russian aircraft fleet is of Boeing and or Airbus aircraft. The only access to maintenance parts will be the ones that they have on the shelves. Over time Russia might be able to reverse engineer and manufacture at least some parts. Electronics may prove harder. However Russian aircraft no longer have the amount of destinations that they can fly to with passengers or air freight, so they can likely cannibalise much of the fleet for spare parts. And since the majority of the aircraft are leased from Irish companies, there will be little blow-back that the Russian government would be bothered about at the moment.

Maintenance will also need to be done on trains and the railway network, oil and gas extraction equipment, manufacturing production lines and even hospital medical equipment. A similar mend and make do approach will likely be needed for all these sectors, which will slow down economic activity and make it harder to climb out of recession.

Rebuilding

If the second Chechen war is anything to go by, rebuilding Ukraine will be a very costly endeavour that will need to be bankrolled by either Russia or the west. As the west found out in Iraq, winning the war is the easiest and cheapest part. Rebuilding and trying to a puppet government in power with an insurgency funded by western citizen direct contributions and government funding could be a real challenge. As would trying to integrate Ukraine into Russia. Even the most draconian of measures have a high financial cost as well as societal and moral related issues.

Footage has also indicated that Russia will need to rebuild its military apparatus. The tyres were rotting off Russian and Belorussian vehicles for the want to proper care and maintenance programmes. In preparation of a future conflict with NATO, or further down the line China, Russia couldn’t afford to take those kind of losses. Wars are a shop window for the defence industries and this won’t be doing any favours for foreign sales of Russian armed vehicles, anti-aircraft systems or aircraft.

The performance of equipment in Ukraine is in sharp contrast to the veneer of professionalism and technical excellence shown by Russian forces operating in support of, and on the ground in Syria.

Russia will need to replenish ammunition supplies, maintain or replace artillery barrels and replenish field rations. Word will get around about the poor state of field rations. It will need to revamp its approach to logistics and supply chain management because everything that I listed was entirely preventable. All of this rebuilding will be challenging if Russia faces a sustained insurgency. China spends more on internal security than it spends on external facing military. NATO estimates that Russia would need to have a minimum 400,000 soldiers to maintain control of Ukraine. If Russia followed the same density of soldiers to population that it had in Chechnya, it would need 4 million soldiers.

There are some terrible options to consider:

Cull a proportion of the population, Russia is already a pariah state after all. Ignoring for morality of this for a moment which would be a huge issue in Russia, we know that this would represent tremendous logistical challenges as it did for Nazi Germany. But former Russian leaders, notably Josef Stalin killed a lot of Ukrainians including starving many of them to death and Mr Putin has proved himself to be a student of history

Russian recession

When you take jobs, economic activity and capital flow out of an economy a recession will be inevitable. Many of the jobs that Russia will lose will be in middle class sectors including management, banking, the professions and business services. No matter what these companies do to try and mitigate the impact on their former staff, the impact will be felt economically in Russia.

Add to that the obliterated economy in Ukraine that might be dragging Russia down even further.

Over the longer term Russia will be selling their export products at a discount due to fewer customers and a more expensive route to market. So it will be harder for Russia to climb out of recession.

Reshaping of supply chains

Russian oil and gas has previously focused predominantly on selling oil and gas to Europe and Turkey and will be covered with sanctions. It will take a while to make alternative pipeline capacity to go east to China. Previously Russia has made use of foreign LPG terminals. Presumably these will cut access to transport by sea for Russia. Liquified natural gas tankers are expensive and Russia’s largest domestic LPG terminal is on the wrong side of the world, just down from St Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland. This would be the equivalent of drinking a venti mug of coffee with a teaspoon.

Russia has been experimenting with shipping some LPG by train to Northeastern China. In terms of helping finance future projects, China isn’t likely to fund LPG projects that would give Russia to foreign markets other than itself. This would be one of the first areas where we see Russia clearly as the junior geopolitical partner beholden to China. So a gas pipeline to China is likely to be the preferred route to market.

Russia is in a slightly better position with oil. its easier to ship by sea and for the right price, Russia could find customers beyond China.

Consumer sanctions busting

Russia will have already started thinking about sanctions busting, but doing this in a big way will take time, money and planning. At a consumer level, Russians will be looking to safeguard wealth through portable assets that are liquid, or can be easily made liquid. This means foreign currency, crypto-wallets, luxury watches, diamonds and precious stones. There has already been a run on the rouble at Russian banks as citizens look to obtain foreign currency and Russia has implemented capital controls on people leaving the country.

Cybercrime

It’s only a matter of time for Russia to tap its cyber criminal community and state hackers to come up with a source of foreign currency to help the Kremlin. These will be more capable than what North Korean state hackers have historically being doing. Ransomware payments will likely come over cryptocurrency. The problem with cryptocurrency is that the exchanges are becoming increasingly centralised, so criminals will be playing cat and mouse with the likes of Binance. The cryptocurrency sector in Hong Kong may be more fruitful. The COVID quarantine situation and regulatory uncertainty in Hong Kong won’t deter Russians keen to launder crypto into foreign currency and access to the global financial system.

Finance

Russia will try to get around foreign payments through a number of ways. Asianometry have done a really good exploration of this topic and I figure that you could do with a video break in this dystopian discussion of Russia and Ukraine. We have seen Russian banking systems sign up with Union Pay, which has limited acceptance in the west (usually big department stores that rely on the Chinese tourist trade like Selfridges in London and Brown Thomas in Dublin).

Long term effects

At the moment there isn’t a clear off-ramp for sanctions against Russia. One might see softening of sanctions in the developing world, for Russian products at the right price. The longer that sanctions remain, the harder it will be for Russia to regain its global economic standing once they are lifted. Russia hasn’t been a trusted partner at the best of times due to systemic corruption. Systemic corruption will be further fuelled as the country falls under Chinese influence, there won’t be a need to meet ESG driven checks and balances. It will face sustained cynicism in the west with regards its motives and will increasingly become less relevant.

In addition it will be locked into draconian financial deals with China which would make it harder to kick start the Russian economy. Globalisation will have created alternatives for its higher value goods, so will need to rely its commodities. It will be a third line supplier for strategic materials like industrial diamonds, uranium or titanium because of the trust deficit.

Russia declining, China rising

Russia is already struggling for relevance in the Russian Far East. The economic gravity is moving away from Russia towards China. Chinese companies are leasing farm land and forestry. Russian financial distress will encourage this trend much faster. The Russian Far East is part of an ‘unfair treaty’ between Russia and China during the 19th century. While China tries to keep a lid on the discussion about this, it is on the radar of Chinese nationalists. The question of Russian sovereignty will come up at some point and Russia won’t be able to secure any foreign support.

China will be Russia’s banker of last resort and given that the yuan isn’t transferrable, Russia won’t be able too disconnect at a later date. China will use favourable pricing to get hold of Russian resources, Russian expertise and privileged market access. All of this will come at the expense of Russian businesses, entrepreneurs and the Russian taxpayer.

Russia will have been cleared off the map for sporting events, an area that China attaches great importance to for national pride.

The fall against China will transform the China-Russia relationship in a coercive way, similar to what we have seen China do with African countries.

Sanctions busting

Taking apartheid era South Africa as an example. South Africa was able to buy arms from East Germany, despite the communist state’s support of the ANC. Chinese arms were purchased by South Africa and used to equip their allies fighting in Angola. If the price is right, Russian arms will still be sold abroad. We know that North Korea has serviced and refurbished Soviet-era equipment like T-55 tanks for a long time and Iranian arms pop up across the developing world including medium range missiles and drones. So there will be customers there for Russia, at the right price. What we might end up seeing is that Chinese arms are seen as ‘more premium’ due to superior technology. Russian private military contractors will be used to earn foreign currency, wherever there is money on the table.

We can expect Russia to be able to obtain at least some material that it considers to be vital to its needs and there will be some strange bedfellows involved. This might be through convoluted and more expensive means. Countries that fully supported Russia in the UN are pariah states anyway, so they would be of limited use as conduits. But they are likely to be customers for Russian exports. For instance, North Korea could be enjoying more oil at a lower price, if the rail link across the Russian border would be able to handle a long tanker train. Or if Russian ‘ghost tankers’ manage to do transhipment.

So they may use third parties countries that abstained from the UN motion

The United Arab Emirates is in a unique position. It is an established Russian trading partner with an established Russian community and the kind of financial sector infrastructure to help build an offshore shell game to hide Russian sanctions busting. It has many of the benefits of London in terms of expertise, but none of the ESG related problems that ‘Londongrad‘ now has due to the invasion of Ukraine.

Cultural impact

Russia feels that it is linked culturally much more closely to the west in terms of music, literature and even sports. This will be unprecedented, even during the cold war, there were cultural and sports exchanges. Being cut off from these exchanges had a huge impact on apartheid-era South Africa. It is likely to impact how Russia sees itself, the sense of isolation due to its pariah status will be palpable. I can’t see Russia pivoting to China in those areas, they have too little in common from a cultural perspective.

The rich and powerful who enjoy a global cosmopolitan lifestyle will feel this impact in a very acute way, the middle classes will also feel the impact but will be equally concerned with their reduced financial status.