For all the West’s efforts to punish companies close to Russian President Vladimir Putin with financial sanctions, it’s the blameless private companies that will probably suffer the most.
Putin’s regime can live with U.S. and European bans on exports of dual-use technology. Although some companies – like the Czech aviation equipment manufacturer PBS – might lose business, there will be a Russian company waiting to take over for just about every Western defense company that won’t be able to sell to Russia. Dmitri Rogozin, the deputy prime minister responsible for the military industrial complex, is already promising that Russia will build a helicopter carrier of its own if France fails to supply the second Mistral warship it is under contract to produce.
Russia’s oil and gas industry can live with the ban on supplies of U.S. and European oil extraction equipment. Although Russia imports all of the equipment it uses in offshore drilling projects and about 70 percent of its fracking equipment, the worst that can happen is a delay in some projects while Russian oil companies source the necessary kit in Asia or get Russian manufacturers to step in. As long as there is no embargo on the sale of Russian oil and gas, there will be money to replace traditional suppliers such as Schlumberger and Halliburton. In a way, the sanctions will spur Russia to invest in creating competition for the global industry leaders.
Financial sanctions, though, can hit harder, because Russia needs funding to build its defense and energy capacity. The United States has already banned a number of state-controlled Russian companies – including oil giant Rosneft and three big banks – from borrowing money in the U.S. for more than 90 days. Europe is about to introduce similar curbs this week.
This part of the sanctions package appears well-designed. Bloomberg News reporters Boris Korby and Lyubov Pronina have calculated that Russian businesses have $165 billion in bond debt denominated in dollars and European currencies, and more than $100 billion in offshore syndicated loans. Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas monopoly, owes the most to Western bondholders – $28 billion, not counting its oil unit, Gazprom Neft, which is a top-10 borrower, too. Nord Stream, Gazprom’s European pipeline project, owes $5.6 billion in syndicated loans. Rosneft owes $6.9 billion to bondholders and a staggering $36.3 billion in syndicated loans. All the state banks are among the top borrowers, too. In all, the top 10 bond issuers, eight of which are state-controlled and most of which are on the sanctions lists, account for almost two-thirds of outstanding Russian corporate bonds denominated in Western currencies.
Gazprom and Rosneft probably won’t face funding problems anytime soon: They have $21.6 billion and $20.1 billion in cash and equivalents, respectively. Russia has $472.5 billion in hard currency reserves, more than twice the corporate debt burden denominated in foreign currencies. The central bank has already promised support to sanctioned banks.
Private Russian businesses will face bigger problems. Western investors and lenders will now be reluctant to fund them out of understandable caution: Russia is as toxic as it has ever been since its debt default in 1998. The top 10 syndicated loan borrowers, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, include private giants such as potash producer Uralkali with outstanding debts of almost $4.5 billion, Russian Aluminum with $2.35 billion, and mining conglomerate Norilsk Nickel with more than $2 billion. Russia’s biggest private oil company, Lukoil, has $8 billion in outstanding Western currency bonds.
Strictly speaking, these companies are not to blame for Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, though they have partly funded it with their taxes. They, and dozens of smaller ones, will now experience a funding drought simply because they are incorporated in Russia.
Theoretically, this should force the affected companies’ billionaire owners to put pressure on Putin to make him stop messing with Ukraine. The German weekly Der Spiegel reported recently that that’s what German intelligence, BND, believes will happen. According to the magazine, BND chief Gerhard Schindler has told a Bundestag committee that “cracks now appear to be forming in Putin’s power structure.”
That is most likely wishful thinking. Private business, no matter how wealthy, has no influence in Putin’s Russia. To the Kremlin, billionaires are just managers running factories, oil fields and banks for the state.
Even though Western sanctions are finally getting serious after almost five months of the Ukrainian conflict, Putin will not give up. Russia has the resources to take the pain and more. Putin’s bet is that the West will stop short of isolating Russia completely because of the cost to its own interests.
Bloomberg View contributor Leonid Bershidsky is a a Moscow-based writer.