Last month, Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, said capital outflows from Russia since the beginning of the Crimea crisis earlier this year exceed $220 billion, a huge sum and a sign that investors have decided Vladimir Putin’s newly aggressive foreign policy creates unnecessary market risks.
The Organization for European Cooperation and Development, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund all predict the Ukrainian crisis will slash economic growth in Russia to near or below zero this year, exacerbating problems in an already weak economy.
Meanwhile, U.S. and European sanctions aimed at rich associates of President Putin have probably created some friction within Russia’s ruling circles.
Whatever the reason, Putin appears to be signaling a desire for a peaceful resolution of the continuing crisis in Ukraine, where Eastern separatists are conducting an armed struggle for independence with major help from covert Russian government agents.
He has met one Western demand, at least partially, by removing most of the Russian troops that he assembled on Ukraine’s Russian border in March.
A key test will come Friday when he and Ukraine’s newly elected President Petro Poroshenko attend, by invitation, France’s June 6th ceremony in Normandy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day. On Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama publicly urged Putin to meet with President Poroshenko during the ceremony and said he also looked forward to speaking with the Russian leader.
Early signs of a real Russian policy change could be a reduction in violence created by pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine and a decision by Russia to reduce the recently raised cost and remove the new cash terms of natural gas delivery to Ukraine.
Such steps would not only benefit Ukraine but would ease European fears of a gas cutoff because of Ukrainian-Russian tensions. Pipelines that supply a substantial amount of Europe’s natural gas supplies run through the Ukraine.
Meanwhile, NATO just wrapped up a summit devoted to the Ukrainian crisis and the Western response. On Tuesday, Russia’s ambassador to NATO warned that his nation might pull out of a 1990s pact with NATO if it judges the summit’s decisions to be anti-Russian.
But Russia’s seizure of Crimea already abrogates the treaty in the view of most experts. In any event, President Obama’s Tuesday visit to Poland suggests that the initial measures agreed in Brussels this week will be relatively modest.
Poland said it would raise its defense budget to 2 percent of GDP, the official NATO goal. (The U.S. defense budget is currently at 4 percent of GDP and coming down; Germany’s is 1.3 percent.)
Obama said he would establish a $1 billion fund to support more U.S. military exercises in Eastern Europe and pre-position equipment in the region.
The obvious suggestion is that these modest measures could be amended when NATO meets again in the fall if Russia continues to foment trouble.
Putin should seize the opportunity to promote a peaceful end to the current tensions in Ukraine.