However, if that is really the case, then how is it possible that Putin is so bold in his geopolitical adventures? After all, he is risking the same economic sanctions of Western powers that have absolutely devastated the economy of his ally Iran.
Russian economic strength
Well, one reason why Putin cares less about these sanctions is that, unlike Iran, Russia’s economy is self-sufficient where it matters.
- Massive agricultural sector? Check.
- Plenty of raw materials? Check.
- Advanced Information Technology sector? Check.
- State of the art-defence and aerospace industries? Check.
But, you know what, this is not the most important reason that Putin is just not that afraid of Western economic sanctions.
Russia’s War chest
Let me present to you the one thing standing between Russia and Western economic sanctions (pile of cash). That is right, the central bank of the world’s 11th biggest economy has amassed the fifth largest pile of foreign currencies in the world.
So, how do these, central bank owned, foreign exchange reserves protect mother Russia?
Well, imagine the West cuts of both Russian firms and banks from its massive financial markets.
No problem, they just turn to the Russian government for a share of that foreign exchange pile.
Or, now imagine that these sanctions lead to a speculative run on the Russian Rubble.
Again, no problem the Russian central bank can just use its vast reserves to buy back Rubbles on foreign exchange markets, stopping the fall.
But, hold on, hold on, you could now credibly argue that, while a bit smaller, Russia also had a significant war chest of foreign reserves when it was hit by economic sanctions after annexing Crimea in 2014. Concretely, these sanctions meant preventing many Western companies from doing business with Russian firms in the energy & defence sector. But, more importantly, it meant that Russian banks were suddenly shut off from Western capital markets.
For comparison, inflation is 7% today in the USA and people are already losing their freaking minds.
And all of this happened in spite of its Russia impressive war chest of foreign reserves.
So, what did Russia learn from this experience?
First of all, it learned that it needed even more reserves to take away any doubt that Russia wouldn’t be able to defend the Ruble against speculative attacks.
So, instead of investing their oil and gas money in the local economy, Russia invested it in foreign exchange reserves instead.
Second, Russia’s private sector learned to depend less on foreign finance.
Did all of this lead to economic hardship for ordinary Russians over the last few years? Sure… but, .
Finally, while most countries hold their foreign exchange reserves as Dollars.
On average 60%.
Russia has recognized that such assets can easily be blocked or frozen by the U.S. To counter that, it has successfully diversified its war chest. It now only holds 16% of its reserve in Dollar assets. For the rest it holds roughly 32% Euro assets, 13% Chinese Yuan, 6.5% in British Pounds, 10% other currencies, and almost 22% in Gold.
But, now you could say… doesn’t that large share of Euro & British pound denominated assets still make Russia vulnerable to the West?
Well, not really, since while Russia has reduced its financial exposure to the West, European politicians have once again, failed to think strategically.
You see, while in 2014, 37% of gas imported to Europe came from Russia, that number has now increased to almost 47%.
And you know what is strange… even though Russian gas production has remained roughly constant, gas supplies to Europe have fallen drastically as tensions increased.
And sure, Europeans named Joeri… have no issue turning off the heater… and just sitting out this little winter…
But, the other Europeans…. they like their houses warm and cosy. And with energy prices already sky high, Europe is just in no position to risk losing access to that cheap Russian gas.
Sure, as is often the case in economics, the long run works differently. I can assure you that, right now!, European nations are scrambling to shift from gas based energy to renewables.
But, just to give you an idea, the Netherlands has set itself the goal of getting of gas by 2050.
I don’t think Putin his boots with such a deadline.
And even if European countries are able to speed that up somehow, China is currently switching from coal to gas. Because China is so big, this pushes up gas prices like crazy and will likely ensuring the Russian economy will remain insulated from Western sanctions for the foreseeable future…. unless the Chinese economy slows down due to a property prices.