No doubt the world’s movers and shakers are very surprised by what their Russian sanctions have triggered so far – an energy crisis, a food crisis, rationing, a recession signal, soaring petrol prices, the prospect of double-digit inflation, the risk of Russian bond payments going missing, rising trade flows outside the US dollar system, the electorate questioning net-zero commitments, and plenty more.
Western leaders had clearly hoped to cause chaos inside Russia. However, it seems their own electorates are the ones suffering.
The Russian rouble has recovered from its plunge, the Russian stock market is open (under certain restrictions), and nations are happily buying Russian energy exports…
To sum up, it seems to me that the sanctions effort has boomeranged, with Western political leaders realising it has missed Putin and is heading straight for them.
For those of you who don’t know, boomerangs can be surprisingly painful for the thrower. But that’s nothing compared to what’s coming our way as a result of the sanctions recently imposed.
Let’s start with an amusing example of how sanctions backfire. Reuters has reported that confiscated Russian yachts are causing headaches for yacht marinas and yacht-services companies. Their bills aren’t being paid…
In a quiet corner of the French Riviera, La Ciotat Shipyards said it is writing bills for mooring fees for the towering white superyacht Amore Vero, but it doesn’t know who to send them to.
The French government seized the yacht, which indirectly belongs to a Russian oligarch, who denies ownership. But nobody has told the suppliers who to bill, nor who will pay. The yacht was getting a refit, so the bills are mounting.
This is, of course, just one example of an underlying issue, as Reuters continues:
The questions hanging over the Amore Vero point to the complexities authorities face as they target the assets of Putin’s allies, and the disruption being brought to some businesses.
And the worst humiliation may be yet to come on the yacht front, too. If the French government fails to prove Russian oligarch ownership, it could be liable for all the costs and losses, including missed charter earnings.
President Macron might end up having to pay for Putin’s missed summer holiday!
The yachting example highlights plenty of points I’d like to make about the unintended consequences of sanctions, but let’s continue with another example.
Thanks to the opacity of the pension system and pension funds, many people own investments they are not aware of via funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that they also don’t know they own. This implies that you may be funding Putin’s war effort with your retirement savings! Someone is holding all those Russian bonds, after all…
Adding insult to injury, the sanctions might make it difficult for the Russians to pay up on the bonds. So investors could be facing losses on their retirement funds because of their own government’s sanctions…
But who set up a system which forces investors to opt out if they want to avoid this absurd set of circumstances? Why, the very same government did, with our opt-out pensions.
To be clear, the government took your money, unless you opted out, then handed it to the City, which likely invested some small portion of it in Russian government bonds, which funded the Russian war effort…
Energy remains the big sanctions story, though.
In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, BASF CEO Martin Brudermüller was asked why BASF is continuing to fund the Russian war effort by way of buying Russian gas.
It seems Brudermüller, the leader of one of Germany’s biggest conglomerates, a chemicals company, and one of the biggest energy consumers in the country, was having none of it.
According to my own translation, the headline above the interview reads, “Do we want to destroy our entire economy for the sake of keeping up appearances?”
Here are some other choice quotes, as translated by The Deep Dive blog:
Merely putting on an extra layer of clothing or turning the heat down two degrees still won’t help.
Russia covers 55 percent of German natural gas consumption.
That means if the EU’s gas supplies from Russia were cut off overnight, the economic system would suddenly be overloaded with a surge in unemployment and bankrupt companies— damage that would be irreversible.
To put it bluntly: This could bring the German economy into its worst crisis since the end of the Second World War and destroy our prosperity. For many small and medium-sized companies in particular, it could mean the end.
Brudermüller reckons that any attempt to freeze out Russian gas would prove him right pretty quickly:
A delivery stop for a short time would perhaps open the eyes of many – on both sides. It would make clear the magnitude of the consequences. But if we don’t get any more Russian gas for a long time, then we really have a problem here in Germany. At BASF, we would have to scale back or completely shut down production at our largest site in Ludwigshafen if the supply fell significantly and permanently below 50 percent of our maximum natural gas requirement.
Many have misconceptions. I notice that in many of the conversations I have. People often make no connection at all between a boycott and their own job. As if our economy and our prosperity were set in stone.
Now, turning down the heat by two degrees in your home or putting on an extra layer of clothing might not help, according to the BASF CEO. But Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition, recently came out with this Brexit-inducing cracker at a Q&A: “Everyone is asking me ‘what can I do? […] Control your own and your teenager’s showers. And when you turn off the water you say, ‘take that Putin!’”
Problem solved! The war in Ukraine is sure to end in a cloud of pungent teens!
Just wait till said teenagers don’t get fed though…
The list of political leaders warning of a food shortage is getting longer fast. And that may be where the buck stops.
But the damage is done, with inflation spiking out of control, necessitating higher interest rates, and a crop-growing season badly hit by fertiliser prices.
The sanctions boomerang is coming your way, and it’s time to duck.
But it’s not all bad news. The energy crisis has made people question net-zero commitments. If we can’t even cut off Russia’s oil and gas without upending everything, what chance has net zero got?
Indeed, the Russians have green energy Europe scrambling for coal. But not for long, with Russian coal imports quickly banned by the EU…
Some people never learn.
But some do. A nuclear boom may be underway, with Britain making a major shift that should’ve happened decades ago.
Adding nuclear to the energy mix gives the green movement a new burst of credibility. Electrification, for example, becomes a lot more viable when you have reliable baseload power. And this frees up limited resources for batteries where they are actually needed – in transport applications, not mains power storage.
The awakening could unleash what my friend James Allen has been telling me about for weeks now.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if the war in Ukraine and the sanctions in response trigger the wake-up call we needed to get our energy in order?
Editor, Fortune & Freedom