Yves here. This discussion with Michael Hudson on RT focuses on the real meaning of the Ukraine-Russia gas deal. One point that Hudson makes that readers might doubt is that Russia loves the US sanctions. I’m not sure “love” is the right word, but there is reason to think they aren’t working out as the US had hoped. First, they’ve greatly increased Putin’s popularity. Even the intelligentsia in Moscow, who were hostile to him, have largely rallied to his side in the face of foreign bullying. Second, the Western press may be overstating the amount of damage done to the economy by the sanctions. Arguably the biggest negative is the fall in the price of oil, which came about growth in Europe and China slowing, and the Saudis announcing that they’d allow the price to reset at a much lower level than most analysts anticipated. But the ruble has been falling, which blunts that effect, but increases the drain on FX reserves as Russia tries to keep it falling too far and will increase inflation. Third, the sanctions have allowed Russia to engage in protection of domestic industries as a retaliatory measure, for instance, blocking many food imports from Europe.
Now all good well-indoctrinated neoliberals will say, “Trade protectionism merely allows domestic producers to become inefficient and uncompetitive.” It’s not so simple. Development economists are increasingly of the view that trade restrictions can help smaller economies develop domestic businesses to the point where they can compete in international markets, while if they foreign firms in, they’ll find it nearly impossible to build any local champions.
A colleague who does business in Russia but has no deep loyalties there, says he sees no signs of negative impact of the sanctions in Moscow (he describes it as now looking like any post World War II European capital). This is confirmed by recent surveys in Russia, so the lack of meaningful impact on Russian citizens isn’t an artifact of his seeing only the better parts of Moscow. Note that the latest EU forecasts anticipate very weak growth this year and next, as opposed to outright recession.
This visitor describes how the sanctions are helping Russian businesses. One of his friends has the Papa Johns franchise. They used to get their cheese from the Netherlands, but those supplies were cut off by the Russian sanctions against Europe. So they had to buy cheese domestically. It was cheaper but not as good. So he is working with the local farmers and cheese-makers to bring the cheese up to the standard of the cheese he used to import. So he expects to eventually have cheese that is lower cost than what he brought in and of comparable quality. And if he succeeded, the cheesemakers will be more competitive in Europe when the sanctions are relaxed.
The shorter version of this story is that Russia has a large enough domestic market and enough resources that unlike Iran, it may be closer to being able to function as an autarky when its imports and exports are restricted. The open question is whether it can go through the pain of a reset, with some serious and painful short-term dislocations, and escape the slow strangulation that the US claims it has imposed.
Now to the RT interview, with the transcript below.
The gas deal between Ukraine and Russia became possible because Europe realized that it wouldn’t get the gas if it didn’t get behind Ukraine, Wall Street analyst Michael Hudson told RT.
RT: How important is this gas deal for Ukraine and for Europe?
Michael Hudson: It’s apparently most important for Europe because it was Europe that gave in on the deal. The problem was never about the price of the Russian gas. The problem was whether Ukraine was doing to keep up trying just to run up a larger and larger gas bill every month and every year and finally default. In the US Treasury, strategists have already discussed in public how Ukraine can simply avoid paying Russia the money that it owed by going to court and stalling it. So Russia understandably said, “We need credit in advance.” Mr. Oettinger of the European Commission said “Wait a minute, Russia, why don’t you just lend them the money. They will repay you.” And Mr. Putin at the Valdai Club speech in Sochi last week made it very clear. Look, [Russia] has already lent them 11 billion dollars, much more than anyone else has lent to Ukraine. Ukraine is bankrupt, it’s torn itself apart. Why didn’t perhaps a European Bank underwrite the loan? Finally, Mr. Oettinger gave in. Europe said “OK, the IMF is going to lend Ukraine the money to pay Russia for the gas for the balance of the year.” So that Ukraine would end up owing the IMF money and the European Commission money, not Russia. So Russia will not be exposed to having to lend any more money to a dead-beat economy.
RT: You think that it was the EU who gave in on that deal and not Ukraine or Russia. Why?
MH: Ukraine has passed. Ukraine said “We are broken, we don’t have any money, we have spent all our money on war. Our export industry is collapsing. If we need gas, we’ll simply steal the gas that Russia is sending to Europe. We are not going to starve – we’ll just take your gas.” And Putin said, “Well, if they try to steal gas like they did a few years ago, we’ll just turn off the gas and Europe won’t get gas”. So Europe realized that it wouldn’t get the gas if it didn’t step behind Ukraine and all of a sudden Europe is having to pay for Ukraine’s war against Russia. Europe is having to pay for the whole mess in Ukraine so that it can get gas, and this is not how they expected it to turn out.
RT: Do you think this deal will improve relations between Europe and Russia?
MH: Europe is very uncomfortable with being pressured by the US that essentially said “Let’s you and Russia fight.” Europe is already suffering. Germany has always been turning towards Russia, all the way. 50 years ago, I remember Konrad Adenauer in Germany always spoke very pro-Western and pro-American, but always turned economically towards Russia. So of course Europe, and Germany especially, has wanted to maintain its ties with Russia. The problem is the US [wants] to start a new Cold War. It created a lot of resentment in Europe, and Europe is finally capitulating. This means that the US pressure to set Europe against Russia has failed.
RT: Could we expect now easing of sanctions on Russia?
MH: No, Europe is still being pressured, the sanctions are pressured by NATO, and NATO is pressing for a military confrontation with Russia. The sanctions are going to continue unless Russia gives back Crimea, which of course it won’t. The sanctions are hurting Europe, they are turning out to be a great benefit for Russia because finally Russia is realizing: “We can’t depend on other countries to supply our basic imports, we have to rebuild our industry.” And the sanctions are enabling Russia to give subsidies to its industry and agriculture that it couldn’t otherwise do. So Russia loves the sanctions, Europe is suffering and the Americans are finding that the Europeans are suddenly more angry at it than they are at Russia.