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Russia Has $630 Billion To Spare As It Considers Cutting European Gas Flows

  • The plethora of sanctions that were announced by Western powers after Russia invaded Ukraine and one notable absence: energy industry sanctions.
  • The reason European powers are so reluctant to sanction Russia’s oil and gas industry is that they need Russia’s natural gas far more than Russia needs their money.
  • Thanks in part to high energy prices, Russia now has $630 billion in foreign exchange reserves, a sum of money that means it could survive turning off the taps to Europe.

After months of seemingly endless preparations, Biden's and the West's worst fears finally came true on Thursday after Russian forces launched their long-feared attack on Ukraine. Brushing off international condemnation and the first tranche of sanctions from the U.S. and its allies, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the beginning of a "special military operation" aimed at the "demilitarization" of Ukraine. Russian forces have reportedly fired missiles at military control centers in Kyiv, with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba saying via Twitter on Thursday that Putin had "launched a full-scale invasion," of the country.

Some commentators are drawing parallels between Russian aggression against Ukraine to Hitler's invasion of Poland in August 1939 in what is shaping up to be Europe's biggest crisis since WWII. Russia's invasion of Ukraine represents one of the continent's worst security crises in decades and is expected to have far-reaching implications for the global economy, particularly given Russia's unique position as Europe's pre-eminent energy supplier.

Crude oil and gas prices are surging as Russia strikes major cities in Ukraine, hitting levels not seen since 2014. Brent futures (CO1:COM) (NYSEARCA:BNO) jumped +8% early on Thursday to trade above $105 per barrel at one point, while WTI futures (CL1:COM) (NYSEARCA:USO) rallied by a similar margin and even hit $100 per barrel at one point.

The markets have been bracing for this kind of outcome given that Russia is the world's No. 3 exporter of oil and its No. 2 exporter of natural gas. Russia produces 10% of the world's oil and is the biggest European natural gas supplier.

"This is a triple-hit to the global economy, with a toxic combination of higher inflation, lower economic growth, and greater uncertainty. The only silver lining is growth is strong, a buffer to any slowdown, and policymakers and investors already prepared for high inflation," eToro strategist Ben Laidler writes.

Laidler says supply disruption risks are low, noting that Russia reliably supplied the West through the cold war. Still, he has predicted high-for-longer commodity prices, with current oil ‘risk premium' only the latest driver to a structurally very tight market.

But not everybody is that sanguine.

"While Western governments probably will exempt energy transactions from sanctions, the blizzard of new restrictions will force many traders to be exceedingly cautious in handling Russian barrels. Gas transiting Ukraine will likely be disrupted, affecting supplies to several central and eastern European countries, and raising gas prices in Europe,"  analysts at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group have told CNBC.

Turning off the gas taps

The million-dollar question here is what would happen if Russia does the unthinkable and completely turns off gas supplies to Europe.

After all, for several months, Russia has been repeatedly accused of intentionally disrupting gas supplies to leverage its role as a major energy supplier to Europe amid an escalating dispute with Ukraine. Two months ago, European natural gas prices hit record highs after a pipeline that brings Russian gas to Germany switched flows to the east. Westward gas flows through the 2,607-mile-long Yamal-Europe pipeline, one of the major routes for Russian gas to Europe, have gradually declined, a move the Kremlin says has no political implications. Western politicians contend that Russia has been using its natural gas as a weapon in the political tussle tied to Ukraine, as well as delays in the certification of another controversial pipeline, Nord Stream 2. Russia has, of course, denied any connection, with state-owned Gazprom (GZPFY) saying it has fulfilled its contractual obligations to customers.

That has not stopped many energy analysts from being deeply concerned about the risk of a full supply disruption to the EU - which receives roughly 40% of its gas via Russian pipelines, several of which run through Ukraine.

Indeed, Russia is in a better position than ever to pull off such a diabolical move.

According to David Frum of The Atlantic and author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy (2020), Russia's Ukraine invasion has been greatly aided by high energy prices, especially natural gas, in the ongoing energy boom. Frum notes that the price of Russian gas on spot markets surpassed $10 per million metric BTUs in June 2021 before tripling to the current $30 per million metric BTUs. The sharp rise in energy prices has helped Russia's foreign exchange reserves hit $630 billion, or 42% of the country's $1.5 trillion GDP.

With those massive financial resources, Russia could inflict real havoc on world energy markets if it chooses to, with the natural gas markets likely to be the hardest hit because gas is harder to substitute. In theory, Russian pipeline gas could be partly replaced by liquid natural gas from the United States, Qatar, or other suppliers; unfortunately, ramping up LNG production and shipment is very difficult to do in a hurry. 

According to Kateryna Filippenko, principal analyst for Europe gas research at Wood Mackenzie, "Were all gas flows to stop today, Europe could well muddle through in the short term, given higher storage inventories and low summer demand. But in the event of prolonged disruption, gas inventory couldn't be rebuilt through the summer. We'd be facing a catastrophic situation of gas storage being close to zero for next winter. Prices would be sky high. Industries would need to shut down. Inflation would spiral. The European energy crisis could very well trigger a global recession."

Troy Vincent, senior market analyst at researcher DTN Markets, concurs with Filippenko's view and has told CNBC that "there are simply no alternatives" to Russian volumes of oil and gas "that do not entail far higher prices and potentially the development of severe shortages."

Putin is, of course, well aware of this, and could use oil and gas as an ace in Moscow's hand in the unfolding drama.

Russian market selloff

Russian stocks have been selling off heavily, tanking by more than 40% on Thursday while the ruble hit a record low against the dollar.

The MOEX index plunged as much as 45%, while the RTS index--which is denominated in dollars--was down 37% at 7.15 a.m. ET. The crash wiped about $70 billion off the value of Russia's biggest companies.

Russian banks and oil companies were among the hardest hit in volatile trading, with shares in Sberbank (SBRCY)--Russia's largest lender--at one stage losing 57% of their value. Rosneft, in which BP Inc. (NYSE:BP) owns a 19.75% stake, plunged as much as 58%, before steadying a little. BP shares dropped 4% in London. 

Gazprom, the giant gas company behind the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, was down 40%. 

By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Bill Mal on February 24 2022 said:
    By undermining the US energy complex facilitating energy prices to increase, reversing sanctions on Russia 3 days after taking office and not instituting sanctions sooner Biden paved the way for Russia's aggression.

    Biden was too busy fighting windmills to see the real threats in our world. Hopefully Putin isn't seeking to go beyond Ukraine and try to make a move against a NATO member. I fear all bets will be off.
  • Lee James on February 24 2022 said:
    Very timely article and useful article. Thank you.

    Short of looking at Russia along a gun barrel, this article is helpful for seeing what possibilities there are for exerting economic pressure. I have the impression that Putin prepared for his invasion in all ways, including building in an economic cushion in the case that the West would buy less Russian petroleum.

    Well, he&amp;#039;s got a head-start on us, but let&amp;#039;s go ahead on buying less Russian petroleum, investing less in Russian companies and apologizing to the Russian people that getting their attention economically is our most humane option.
  • Mamdouh Salameh on February 25 2022 said:
    Russia must have taken pre-emptive measures to counter Western sanctions against it and must have also ensured support from its closest ally China before invading Ukraine. Moreover, Russia helped by rising oil and gas prices of recent times has amassed a war chest estimated at $630 bn so it can withstand western economic sanctions.

    Still, sanctions in general don’t work. They are at best irritants but with hardly any bite. Cases in point are sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 in the aftermath of its annexation of the Crimea and those against Iran and Venezuela.

    Despite the most intrusive US sanctions, the Russian economy continued to expand growing at 4.7% in 2021 with GDP reaching $4.32 trillion making it the world’s 6th largest economy based on purchasing power parity (PPP).

    Any new sanctions against Russia aren’t going to fare better than the existing ones particularly with support from China who will help Russia mitigate if not nullify their impact exactly as it has be helping Iran and Venezuela.

    The reason that the United States and the EU excluded Russian oil and gas exports from their sanctions is that they will harm those who are imposing them since the United States and the EU are among the world’s largest importers of oil and gas. Russia would have shifted all its oil and gas exports to China, the world’s largest energy market.

    US sanctions against Nord Stream 2 were expected. However, the United States can’t kill Nord Stream 2. It failed to stop its construction and it will certainly fail to kill it. Only Germany can.

    However, Germany isn’t going to commit economic suicide. Germany’s suspension of Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is cosmetic since the pipeline has been anyway sitting idle since its completion in September 2021. If, however, Germany decides to stop it completely, it will be a major blow to its economy since this will sink more than 150 major German companies who contributed more than half of the cost of building Nord Stream 2 estimated at $11 bn. Furthermore, it will undermine its future energy security since it depends on Russian oil and gas for 65% of its needs.

    And to complicate matters, Russia may decide to cancel its current 5-year agreement with Ukraine to ship 45 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas supplies to Germany and the EU via Ukraine.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Hugh Williams on February 26 2022 said:
    Russia has provided Germany with natural gas for 30 years without problems and yet has received insults and sanctions. Could it be that the country which was invaded by Germany at the cost of tens of millions of dead Russians have had enough? The attitude of the west led by the USA is that Russia can be kicked as offen as they wish but will never bite.
    What if Russia starts their own sanctions?
  • David Koch on February 26 2022 said:
    Russia mostly sells oil to Europe at much lower long term contract prices. Spot price is crazy higher right now. If Russia quits selling to EU, then EU has to buy from arabs, which means price there goes up and they charge India and China more so russia can potentially make more money selling to India and China. Overall everyone loses from higher transportation costs but Russia much less than most.
  • Bill Tomlinson on February 28 2022 said:
    "The million-dollar question here is what would happen if Russia does the unthinkable and completely turns off gas supplies to Europe."

    A canny operator like Putin would be far more likely to notify Germany that supplies via the Yamal-Europe [i.e. trans-Ukraine] pipeline will cease in a week, but that they can have all the gas they want - and at a reduced price - the only proviso being that they must accept it via Nord Stream 2.
  • Manuel LANZA on March 02 2022 said:
    In a poker game, all chips are on the table.
  • Snoop Doggy Dog on March 07 2022 said:
    Russia only has $30 billion of this in cash (Euros, $US, etc.). They hold ~$80 billion in gold and the rest in bonds and assets that they can't offload unless the bonds aren't Western. Their $630 billion reserve is hardly usable based on the sanctions.

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