Denis Volkov, Levadaâs director, said that initial feelings of âshock and confusionâ that many Russians felt at the start of the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine was being replaced with the belief that Russia is besieged and that its people must rally around their leader.
âThe confrontation with the West has consolidated people,â Mr. Volkov said, adding that some respondents said that while they generally did not support Mr. Putin, now was the time to do so.
According to that line of thinking, he said, people believe that âeveryone is against usâ and that âPutin defends us, otherwise we would be eaten alive.â
Mr. Volkov compared the prevailing mood in Russia to the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, although he said the national feeling today was much darker.
âThere is no euphoria, because this time the situation is much more serious and difficult,â he said. âThere are victims, and it is unclear when it will all end.â
what if the conventional wisdom is wrong? What if the West is only playing into Putinâs hands once again?
The possibility is suggested in a powerful reminiscence from The Timesâs Carlotta Gall of her experience covering Russiaâs siege of Grozny, during the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s. In the early phases of the war, motivated Chechen fighters wiped out a Russian armored brigade, stunning Moscow. The Russians regrouped and wiped out Grozny from afar, using artillery and air power.
Russiaâs operating from the same playbook today. When Western military analysts argue that Putin canât win militarily in Ukraine, what they really mean is that he canât win clean. Since when has Putin ever played clean?
Combine that with Russiaâs previous territorial seizures in Crimea (which has huge offshore energy fields) and the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk (which contain part of an enormous shale-gas field), as well as Putinâs bid to control most or all of Ukraineâs coastline, and the shape of Putinâs ambitions become clear. Heâs less interested in reuniting the Russian-speaking world than he is in securing Russiaâs energy dominance.
âUnder the guise of an invasion, Putin is executing an enormous heist,â said Canadian energy expert David Knight Legg. As for whatâs left of a mostly landlocked Ukraine, it will likely become a welfare case for the West, which will help pick up the tab for resettling Ukraineâs refugees to new homes outside of Russian control. In time, a Viktor Orban-like figure could take Ukraineâs presidency, imitating the strongman-style of politics that Putin prefers in his neighbors.
If this analysis is right, then Putin doesnât seem like the miscalculating loser his critics make him out to be.
It also makes sense of his strategy of targeting civilians. More than simply a way of compensating for the incompetence of Russian troops, the mass killing of civilians puts immense pressure on Zelensky to agree to the very things Putin has demanded all along: territorial concessions and Ukrainian neutrality. The West will also look for any opportunity to de-escalate, especially as we convince ourselves that a mentally unstable Putin is prepared to use nuclear weapons.
Within Russia, the war has already served Putinâs political purposes. Many in the professional middle class â the people most sympathetic to dissidents like Aleksei Navalny â have gone into self-imposed exile. The remnants of a free press have been shuttered, probably for good. To the extent that Russiaâs military has embarrassed itself, it is more likely to lead to a well-aimed purge from above than a broad revolution from below. Russiaâs new energy riches could eventually help it shake loose the grip of sanctions.
This alternative analysis of Putinâs performance could be wrong. Then again, in war, politics and life, itâs always wiser to treat your adversary as a canny fox, not a crazy fool.
âBut the fact that we will not supply gas for free is unequivocal. This can be said with absolute certainty. In our situation, it is hardly possible and hardly advisable to engage in pan-European charity,â he said.
Recall that Russia set a deadline of the 31st when Gazprom is announcing the mechanism(s) at the earliest today. This is already peculiar unless Russia would accept buyers simply making a statement that the new scheme was acceptable, since itâs extremely unlikely that many would have the right banking/payment system mechanics in place already.
Alternatively, Russia could have heard the nearly-united âNyetsâ and decided that there was no point except for the observers in the nosebleed seats to give buyers much time to react, since theyâd already made up their minds. Note that South Korea last week stated it would pay in roubles. Plus the G7 saying no is not tantamount to all of the EU saying no. For instance, Hungary has been sitting out this spat. They seem likely to accept the Russian requirements.
Letâs stop here to make a key point I may not have flagged as strongly as I should have earlier. Because Russia has been running trade surpluses in recent years, and even Russians havenât regarded the rouble as a great store of value, there arenât a lot of roubles floating around outside Russia. And gas buys are in very big volumes.
So any workable âpay in roublesâ scheme will have gas buyers going to Russian banks to execute the foreign exchange transactions, as in sell dollars or euros or sterling to the bank and have it buy roubles to tender to Gazprom. Or in the old world, before the Russian Central Bank was on the top of the sanctioned banks list, the Russian Central Bank could have extended currency swap lines to some large Western banks as another way to allow for banks to obtain roubles.
Now it may be that Russia really wants to stick it to the West and demand an above-market foreign exchange rate for the rouble. But the rouble has already gone up markedly from its start of sanctions low. From TradingView:
Bear in mind that the rouble traded in a fairly narrow and higher range in 2021, from a high of roughly 69.4 to a low of roughly 77.5.
Again, and I may be proven wrong, but the body language from Russia so far is that this change is not about propping up the rouble with an artificial FX rate, but to reduce its exposure to further financial sanctions by making Russian institutions the locus of payment operations. That also means the West could not afford to sanction them if it wants to buy Russian goodies.
Consistent with that reading, one Russian economist opined that a light touch approach, of having buyers transaction with Russian banks, should suffice. From Nezavisimaya Gazeta, translation via TASS:
Leading expert at the Financial University and the National Energy Security Fund Stanislav Mitrakhovich believes that in reality âfinding rublesâ is very easy. âIt is enough to come to the Moscow stock exchange or simply open an account in a Russian bank and make a conversion,â the expert said.
An additional consideration is that Germany, despite taking a very hard line stance, is not making it a legal requirement of public utilities. Note German Energy Minister Robert Habeckâs words, as reported by Associated Press:
Habeck said that âpayment in ruble is not acceptable and we will urge the companies affected not to follow (Russian President Vladimir) Putinâs demand.â
I have no idea how much of Russiaâs gas to Germany is sold to private entities versus government buyers. However, despite the apparent lack of compulsion to follow the governmentâs strong desire, I doubt that many will break ranks. First, they could expect to be savaged in the press. Second, they could be subject to secondary US sanctions, depending on what the Russian mechanisms are.
Finally, Russia is already cutting some energy flows due to lack of buying. This OilPrice story is about oil pipelines, but it illustrates how Russia is willing to halt supply:
Transneft, the Russian oil pipeline operator, has informed local oil companies that it would be capping the intake of yet-to-be-sold crude because of full storage as buyers in the West shun Russian oil, Reuters reported on Tuesday, quoting sources with knowledge of the plan.
Despite the U.S.-led ban on importing Russian oil that some of Washingtonâs allies will also implement, Russian oil in significant volumes will continue to flow into various leading oil-importing countries, so adding to the overall global supply and affecting oil prices. In oil trading terms, then, it is erroneous to assume that all circa-11 million barrels per day (bpd) of Russian oil supply has somehow been removed from the global supply/demand matrix and that this will tighten that oil pricing matrix in favor of further gainsâ¦.
Three other factors are also apposite to note in terms of explaining Novakâs upbeat take on the prospects for Russiaâs oil sector, each of them analyzed in full in my new book on the global oil markets. First, Russia has long been able to make very good profits on all of its oil at US$40 per barrel of Brentâ¦
The second reason is that despite the US dollar-centric sanctions on Russia, the country pays all of its domestic expenses in roubles, so the availability of US dollars or the US dollar-Russia rouble exchange rate is of no consequence in this regard. That said, it is a very clever move to make importers of Russian gas from âunfriendly countriesâ pay for Russian gas in roubles, as it does lend support to the Russian currency, which has a positive psychological effect on those receiving money in that currency. And third, Russia will not be devoid of US dollars anyhow, or other hard currencies, given that it can certainly count on continued massive oil and gas and other trade with China and India.
The Russian currency rose sharply on March 28 as a result of exporters selling foreign exchange earnings and a drop in demand for dollars from resident enterprises and residentsâ¦.
Meanwhile, a sharp decline in international tourism from Russia has also led to the strengthening of the ruble, and as a result the demand for foreign currency has naturally fallen, investment strategist at BCS World of Investments Alexander Bakhtin said. He noted that commodity prices remain high, which is also a positive sign for the Russian currency.
And Russian purchases of Western consumer and industrial goods are also down, again reducing demand for foreign currencies.