Despite sanctions, Russian fuel is still selling — here’s who’s buying

“Petroleum shipments are still relatively stable for Russia, as nations like China and India have picked up some slack from EU countries weaning themselves off oil, and Russia still has LNG, coal, and nuclear energy to help the economy float, too.

In order to make petroleum products more appealing to customers like India and Indonesia, Russia has offered fairly steep discounts — an average of $30 per barrel — against Brent crude oil, which has also been a benefit for Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Cuba, all emerging economies struggling with inflation, as Business Insider reported. Although according to S&P the discounts on Russian crude oil are decreasing, some analysts believe they’ll persist, making Russian crude oil imports highly palatable for poorer countries.”

“Countries like China, India, and Turkey are proving eager partners for the Russian fuel industry, with Turkey doubling Russian oil imports this year and vying to become a hub for Russian LNG transfers into Europe after damage to the Nord Stream pipelines.”

“Even with the Nord Stream 1 pipeline out of commission — and setting aside the transfers to China, now Russia’s biggest natural gas buyer — European countries are importing record amounts of Russian LNG at market prices, according to Bloomberg. France has purchased about 6 percent more Russian LNG between January and September of this year than it did all of last year; Spain has already broken its record for Russian LNG imports this year, and Belgium is on track to do the same.

The stakes for natural gas imports are somewhat different than they are for Russian petroleum, in a number of different ways; for one, the EU hasn’t imposed sanctions against it as it has against petroleum products, though the bloc does intend to eliminate its reliance on Russian fossil fuels by 2027. Second, Russia has already used Europe‘s reliance on its natural gas as a weapon; Russia cut access to many European countries which refused to pay for LNG in rubles, and cut total output to Europe by 60 percent in June and by 80 percent in July, Reuters reported last month.”

“Russia continues to invest heavily in its nuclear technology, and nuclear facilities in many nations are dependent on Russian technology and cooperation to function, even if they’re not directly importing Russian nuclear fuel, according to a report by Robert Ichord for the Atlantic Council.”

“Russia has several illicit strategies to evade western sanctions on its energy products and financial system. Because these transactions are, by their nature, often difficult to track, it’s hard to know how effective and how widespread they are — not to mention how much the Russian economy is benefiting from them.”

Smugglers’ secrets: How Russia can beat EU sanctions

“as the export bans bite over the coming months, Russia will start to crave banned goods that are essential for its military and domestic economy. The Kremlin will also want to replenish its war chest with revenue from sales of sanctioned products — from coal and oil to caviar — to willing buyers overseas.

That means, sooner or later, Moscow will go sanctions busting.”

Russia’s territory in Europe is the latest source of Ukraine war tensions

“What set off the spat this time was Lithuania’s enforcement of EU sanctions against Russia after a months-long transition period. Because Kaliningrad isn’t directly connected to the rest of Russia, it gets most of its supplies by land routes or by sea. Lithuania’s state rail operator announced last week that it would no longer allow the transit of sanctioned goods — like steel products and construction materials — through Lithuania to Kaliningrad.

Russia accused Lithuania of staging a blockade, with Russia’s foreign ministry warning of “practical” retaliation. “Both Lithuania and the EU have been notified through their diplomatic missions in Moscow that such actions are inadmissible and that the steps taken should be overturned and the situation put back on the legal, legitimate track,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Wednesday, according to state-run media. “If this fails to be done, then, of course, retaliatory moves will be inevitable.”

Lithuania has said this is not a blockade, and they are just doing additional checks and following the sanctions rules that all EU states agreed on. “First, any talk of a blockade of Kaliningrad is a lie. Second, Lithuania is complying with the sanctions imposed by the European Union on Russia for its aggression and war against Ukraine,” said Lithuania Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė. Only sanctioned items are targeted; food and medicine can still move, and passenger travel continues. Plus, Kaliningrad can get goods from Russia by sea.

The European Union, meanwhile, has tried to de-escalate and is working on guidelines to implement checks “in a clever and smart way,” said Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief. “[There are] two objectives: to prevent circumvention of the sanctions; and not to block the traffic. Both things should be possible, and we are working on that,” Borrell said.”

Biden Is Right: We Shouldn’t Restrict Americans in the Name of Liberating Cuba

“The move reinstates the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, which from 2007 to 2016 allowed up to 20,000 Cubans per year to come and stay in the U.S. while applying for permanent legal resident status. It also removes the $1,000-per-quarter restriction on how much money Americans can send to family, friends, and private entities across the Florida Straits.”

“Lifting government prohibitions on the movement and trade of Americans is a good policy in and of itself, regardless of impact on captive peoples abroad. But is the impact of increased travel and remittances on balance good or bad for Cubans?

Menendez argues that “nothing changed” as a result of Barack Obama’s decision to ease restrictions. By the unreasonable standard of regime change or even significant liberalization, the senator is correct. But by the standard of measurable differences in living conditions and relationship with the government, things indeed changed. As I wrote after visiting the island in 2016 for the first time in 18 years:

“A noticeable segment of the population has gained at least some financial and experiential independence from the police state. They are not, in my observation, spending that extra money on flower arrangements for the Revolution. As Sen. Jeff Flake (R–Arizona) told us during our visit, “You have about 25 percent of Cubans who work fully in the private sector….The big change is the number of Cubans being able to not have to rely on government and therefore can hold their government more accountable.”””

“Menendez’s statement nods toward the potential universality of his foreign policy vision: “Today is another reminder that we must ground our policy in that reality, reaffirm our nation’s indiscriminate commitment to fight for democracy from Kyiv to Havana, and make clear we will measure our success in freedom and human rights and not money and commerce.”
That logic, applied evenly, suggests at minimum the dismantling of the World Trade Organization and the imposition of travel restrictions on Americans seeking to visit not just Havana but the more than 60 countries categorized by Freedom House as “not free.” Menendez would never openly advocate such an approach, because that approach would be both politically suicidal and logically insane.

Cuba has long been the crystallization of America’s worst foreign policy instincts. Good on the Biden administration for easing that somewhat.”

The Biden experts waging war without weapons

“an economy the magnitude of Russia’s, the 11th largest in the world, has never been sanctioned so comprehensively. Going after a central bank of this size, a major economy’s connections to international banking systems, and many of its sectors, is indeed unprecedented. And to target an economy that large unleashes unintended consequences on Russia, the US, and the globe.

Russia is a major energy exporter, and energy prices are rising and sending inflation even higher. Russia also exports significant amounts of grains, cooking oils, and fertilizer. So sanctioning the country — even with carve-outs and waivers for humanitarian purposes — could have a devastating impact on vulnerable people in poor countries. The United Nations says that economic sanctions will impact Russian and Ukrainian food production, which is exacerbated by the war and Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports. One possible outcome, the UN reports, is that “the global number of undernourished people could increase by 8 to 13 million people in 2022/23.””

““We all worry about the overuse of sanctions, but I think that this is clearly not a case of overuse,” an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity told me. “This is a case of responding to a clear and egregious violation of basic tenets of international law and human rights. I think this is a case of indisputable agreement that the world needs to respond and sanctions are an appropriate tool.””

How Game Theory Explains Why We Have to Sanction Putin — Even If It’s Costly

“The point of sanctioning is that, if we don’t, the norm against territorial incursions will collapse. Preserving this norm — and working to prevent similar abuses in the future — is worth the cost of sanctioning. But why is norm collapse an inexorable consequence of failing to sanction? Fortunately, a bit of game theory can help us answer this question.

Let’s call this the Repeated Sanctions Game, which has two players. In each round of the game, Player 1 (i.e., an adversary such as Putin) chooses whether to transgress, then Player 2 (i.e., NATO) chooses whether to sanction. Transgressing benefits Player 1 (Putin would like to annex Ukraine) but costs Player 2 (NATO would prefer that Ukraine be free). As in real life, sanctioning is costly not just to Player 1 but also to Player 2, who might prefer not to, for example, suffer higher prices or lose revenue from Player 1’s products and businesses as a result. Then Player 2 plays the game again and again — perhaps with the same Player 1, perhaps with another (Putin now, maybe Xi next time).

For Player 2 to deter future transgressions in this game, she would have to threaten to sanction Player 1 whenever he transgresses. This threat has to be credible, otherwise Player 1 will simply call Player 2’s bluff. Player 2 must, if called upon, reliably follow through on her threat.

How can this be worth it for Player 2, given that, as already acknowledged, sanctioning is costly? To see, we must factor future expectations into the cost-benefit calculation. When a transgression isn’t met with sanctions, everyone would reasonably expect that future transgressions may also go unpunished. This is the norm collapsing. So long as Player 2 cares enough about the costs of all those future transgressions, she’ll prefer the collateral costs of punishing the transgressor today to increasing the likelihood of future transgressions. It’s not preventing or stopping the current transgression that’s motivating Player 2 to sanction, it’s the fact that without sanctions as a response, there will inevitably be more transgressions.”

“what the international community is really trying to avoid is other, more rational actors, such as Putin’s eventual successor or Xi, inferring that future invasions will not be punished.”

“So, yes, it’s true that sanctions will hurt our economy, and it’s true that they may even push Putin to further escalate Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. That’s all really bad, but it’s not as bad as a future where national sovereignty is not respected. For the norm against territorial incursion to survive, everyone must forever know that we are willing to pay the cost to sanction.”

Are sanctions against Russia working?

“The United States and its allies imposed unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia in the wake of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The swiftness and intensity of the penalties crashed the ruble, forced the Russian stock market to close, and sent Russians to line up at ATMs to withdraw dollars from their bank accounts.

The Russian economy was in free fall. Until it wasn’t, exactly.

The country’s central bank responded by sharply hiking interest rates to 20 percent and imposing strict capital controls. Those interventions, along with Russia’s still-intact ability to sell its oil and gas abroad, helped create a buffer against the economic chaos after the initial sanctions shock. The measures were “straight out of the country’s economic crisis playbook,” said Adam Smith, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, who worked on sanctions during the Obama administration.

The economic crisis playbook did its job, and calmed the immediate crisis. The ruble stabilized. That allowed Russia to declare victory over the sanctions onslaught. “The strategy of the economic blitz has failed,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in April.

At least, that is what Russia would like to claim. Russia’s efforts to shore up its currency mask the profound economic disruptions and transformations that sanctions are unleashing within Russia right now. The West’s sanctions are isolating Russia, cutting it off from key imports that it needs for commercial goods and its own manufacturing to make its economy work. That means high-tech imports like microchips, to develop advanced weaponry. But it also means buttons for shirts.

Right now, there is “this false sense of stability,” said Maria Shagina, a visiting fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Russia is facing a deep recession, one the Bank of Russia says will be “of a transformational, structural nature.” The Finance Ministry has predicted the Russian GDP will shrink by about 8.8 percent in 2022. Inflation is expected to clock in as high as 23 percent this year. Russia is looking at a looming debt default. All of this will mean hardship for ordinary Russians, who are already seeing their real incomes shrink. Some tens of thousands have tried to flee, especially those in tech, prompting a potential “brain drain.” And these are the things we know; Russia will cease publishing a lot of economic data, a tactic, experts said, Moscow has used before to obscure the effects of sanctions.

These sanctions, said Yakov Feygin, a political economy expert at the Berggruen Institute, are pushing Russia — a modern economy, integrated around the globe — back decades and decades.

“They’ve stabilized it, they’ve taken emergency measures. That was to be expected. But that’s not going to help them in the long run,” Feygin said of Russia. “You’re not going to see people queuing for food for quite a bit. But with the current course of things, it’s still very possible.”

The US and European allies have continued to pile on more penalties, refining and sharpening the sanctions, all in an effort to ratchet up the pressure on Moscow. The EU has proposed a phase-out of Russian oil products, and depending on the final details, that might further erode the Kremlin’s lifeline. And the US could take additional steps, like threatening secondary sanctions that go after countries like China or India, to deter them from buying cheap Russian energy. That comes at a cost, and not just for Russia.

Even without more escalation, the sanctions regime against Russia is one of the most aggressive in history, untested on an economy of Russia’s size and as entangled in the global financial system.

Whether the sanctions are “working,” then, depends on what they are intended to achieve. One thing is clear: Over time, these sanctions will likely make it harder for Russia to rebuild its tanks, manufacture cruise missiles, and finance a war. It will also make it harder to produce food and make cars. And it still may not stop Russia from pursuing its campaign against Ukraine, all with unpredictable consequences for the rest of the world.”

EU closes in on Russian oil ban — but how tough will it be?

“An immediate, full-blown ban imposed by the EU on oil is still a no-go for economic powerhouse Germany. Berlin has indicated to other EU capitals it’s ready to consider cutting Russian oil — even if it is not yet able to abandon imports of gas — but only under specific conditions, which are now being discussed with the European Commission.”

Economic Penalties for Putin’s Aggression Threaten To Impoverish the World

“two consecutive presidents, first Donald Trump and then Joe Biden, wedded to economic nationalism. “When we use taxpayers’ dollars to rebuild America, we are going to do it by buying American: buy American products, support American jobs,” Biden vowed in the recent State of the Union address. He’s unlikely to get much pushback from the public; while support for free trade rose under Trump it has since declined, according to Gallup. More Americans (61 percent) see trade as good for economic growth than see it as a threat (35 percent), but the numbers swing more as a matter of partisan politics than according to principled commitment.

That’s a shame because free-trade advocates are correct. While a strong case can be made that free trade is a basic human right involving consensual relations among individuals, it’s also a miraculous cure for misery. Over the last half-century or so, economists have rediscovered comparative advantage and that “trade openness is a necessary—even if not sufficient—condition for economic growth and reducing poverty,” as Pierre Lemieux wrote for the Cato Institute’s Regulation in 2020.”

“Economic and financial sanctions may cause Russia pain and add to the cost of invading Ukraine. But as governments around the world raise barriers and try to insulate themselves from future uses of weaponized trade and finance, the result is certain to be a world that is poorer and less free.”