Russia aims at Ukraine, and its own economy takes a hit


Alexey Furman/European Pressphoto Agency

Russia hasn’t fired any shots yet in Ukraine, but there were plenty of casualties Monday on Russia’s currency and stock markets.

Share prices of Russian companies plunged more than 11 percent, and the Russian currency, the ruble, also tumbled. The country’s natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, which sells gas to Ukraine and to other parts of Europe through pipelines crossing Ukraine, fell about 12.5 percent by 10:30 a.m. Eastern time, wiping out nearly $13 billion in shareholder value.

The Russian central bank spent about $10 billion to prop up the ruble, Reuters reported.

Meanwhile investors fled to safety: gold and oil. Crude oil prices jumped up more than 2 percent on world markets. The price of the Brent crude, used as a benchmark in most of the world, was up $2.32, to $111.41 a barrel for April delivery.

Citigroup’s commodities analysts said in a report to investors that the worsening political situation in Ukraine had pushed gold prices above $1,340 an ounce, after they fell the week before. “Geopolitical risk from the Ukraine encouraged safe haven demand for bullion,” the Citigroup analysts wrote.

“The Russian economy is definitely being hit. We have seen a slide in the ruble's value against the dollar, and this crisis is likely to precipitate capital flight and deter investments,” said Julia Nanay, a Russia and Caspian region expert with the consulting firm PFC Energy. “This is occurring at a time when Russia needs to attract foreign investment to turn around its weak growth prospects.”

The International Monetary Fund meanwhile began meetings in Kiev on Monday to figure out how to shore up the Ukrainian economy. The fund is limited in what it could do on an immediate basis. But it could provide as much as $1 billion in short-term help -- and perhaps more importantly give symbolic support for the current government.

In a statement Sunday, the heads of the top seven industrialized countries – a group that does not include Russia – said the current crisis could be a "unique opportunity" to put Ukraine's economy on a sounder footing. IMF oversight in Ukraine would be "critical in unlocking additional assistance from the World Bank, other international financial institutions, the (European Union), and bilateral sources," the group said.

The fund has been deadlocked in talks over a larger package of help for the Ukraine, where officials have been hesitant to undo politically popular energy subsidies, let the local currency depreciate and take other steps the fund has demanded.

But the crisis has put talks on a faster pace. The IMF team is expected to spend about 10 days in the country before developing a proposal for international help.

Immediate help could be provided without the extensive reforms imposed under longer-term IMF programs.

The crisis also puts pressure on Europe, which remains heavily dependent upon Russian oil and gas supplies, even though Europe has diversified its sources of gas supply. And much of the gas from Russia flows through pipelines crossing Ukraine, even though Europe has been awaiting supplies from Azerbaijan and Russia has been building pipelines that bypass Ukraine – notably the Nordstream pipeline to Germany via the Baltic Sea.

“Ukraine's pipelines are still key for European gas supplies,” Nanay said. “Near term, the smooth flow of gas across Ukraine is important for both Russia and Europe.”

Paul J. Sullivan, an economics professor at the National Defense University, said that a crimp in gas supplies to Europe would increase competition for Qatari liquefied natural gas, now in heavy demand in Asia, especially Japan.

“This could push prices up most certainly given that the E.U. is the largest importer of natural gas in the world,” he said. Though that could hurt European buyers of Russian gas, Sullivan said that in the long run “this could spur more developments of the massive shale gas reserves in the world and break the back of Gazprom.”

Sullivan added that if conflict engulfed Ukraine it would also affect agriculture markets because Ukraine is a major producer of wheat and the world’s largest source of sunflower oil.

Investment analysts and economists were also looking at the broader impact a chill in relations with Russia or economic sanctions might have on Russian companies doing business abroad or U.S. and European companies doing business in Russia.

Exxon Mobil has extensive exposure in Russia, including production in eastern Russia’s Sakhalin Island and an ambitious exploration project in Russia’s Arctic region. Pepsico sells a variety of soft drinks and snacks. BP owns 19.75 percent of the state-controlled oil company, Rosneft, whose stock slid more than 5 percent Monday.

Steven Mufson covers energy and other financial news.
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