Given the results of the Mueller investigation, which concluded that Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, one could forgive Americans for being wary of the country as the 2020 vote approaches.
Russia is still operating under U.S. (and international) sanctions for its meddling in the U.S. election, as well as its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and its role in a military conflict in the east of the country. But there have been signals that the global appetite to continue these sanctions is waning.
Andrey Kostin, president and chairman of Russia’s second largest lender, VTB Bank, told CNBC Wednesday that Russia would like to see a clearer policy regarding Russia from the U.S.
“We should expect some more specific policy on the part of the U.S. Because I think after the results of the Mueller report the anti-Russian stance somehow weakened but it might revive during the election campaign, we don’t know,” Kostin said, speaking to CNBC’s Dan Murphy at the Russia Calling forum in Moscow.
“It’s very unfortunate because we want a good relationship with the United States, our president is always ready to talk to Mr (Donald) Trump and other officials from the administration, but I’m afraid that unless there will be more precise policy on the part of the American administration, and for this he should probably agree with the Senate and Congress,” the relationship might not improve, he said.
Russia was accused of meddling in the 2016 election race and the allegations, which Russia denied, prompted a near two-year long investigation led by Robert Mueller. The probe said that the Russian government interfered in “sweeping and systematic fashion” and had been designed to favor Trump and harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Mueller said the inquiry did not establish that the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference campaign.
Relations between Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have apparently been cordial against a backdrop of wider hostility toward Russia among U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum, and pressure on Trump to not roll back sanctions.
Asked what the outlook was for U.S.-Russia relations, Kostin said it was better to wait until the result of the 2020 U.S. election.
“My expectation is that we should talk about this maybe only after the elections in the U.S. (in 2020) because now America is going into the new political cycle … And there will be a lot, a lot of fights which we already saw in the last three years since Trump came to power, or did he come to power?,” Kostin joked, adding that Trump appeared to have a good chance of staying in power.
The Russian economy
International sanctions affected certain Russian sectors, including the financial industry, entities and individuals. The sanctions lists have increased each year; global risk management firm The Risk Advisory Group noted in September that the list now consists of more than 500 companies and 300 individuals.
Majority state-owned VTB Bank was placed on a U.S. (and other Western nations’) Ukraine-related sanctions list in 2014.
Kostin was added to a U.S. list of sanctioned individuals in April 2018 as he was deemed to be close to Putin and designated as a government official given the bank’s state-owned status. He told CNBC in May 2018 that the decision to put him on the list was “unfair.”
Nonetheless, Russia embarked on a program of import substitution and has weathered a storm of dramatically low oil prices, which coincided with the imposition of sanctions, leading to a financial crisis in Russia with the ruble tumbling and inflation rocketing.
Russia’s central bank has tamed high inflation in the last few years with a policy of high interest rates (the interest rate was 17% in December 2014) but has since then been gradually lowering the rate as inflation has decreased. In October, the central bank again cut its main interest rate by a surprising 50 basis points to 6.5% and signaled that it could cut the rate again in the coming months because of slowing inflation (which now stands at 3.8%, below its 4% target).
Still, sanctions and geopolitics don’t appear to be putting off all investors with Russian equities among some of the world’s top performers this year amid relatively low valuations and a strengthening currency.
Net returns on the MSCI Russia index are up more than 40% year-to-date as compared to the overall MSCI Emerging Market Index, which is up 10.35% in the same period, data from the MSCI at the end of October showed.
Andrey Kostin, chief executive officer of VTB Group, sits on the plenary panel at the annual VTB Capital ‘Russia Calling’ Forum in Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018.
Andrey Rudakov | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Stability, but risks
VTB’s Kostin said the key word to describe the Russian economy today was “stability” but conceded there was room for improvement.
“What we lack today is fast economic growth, the forecast is 1.3% only in comparison with last year when it was 2.3%,” he said.
“Of course, Russia is an open economy and what’s happening in the world and the slower economic growth in China, in the world, in Europe, is affecting the Russian economy. But we also have our domestic problems, (such as) the lack of investments and lower domestic demand.”
As the world’s second largest natural gas producer, and third largest oil producer in the world, Russia has been able to lean on its energy exports as sanctions have curtailed other parts of its economy. Oil prices have also risen since late 2016 in no small part due to Russia’s pact with OPEC to curb oil output in order to balance supply and demand.