Putin’s Imperial Road to Economic Ruin

PARIS – The debate around Crimea is no longer centered on international law: Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly recognized that he does not feel bound by it and does not care if the rest of the world deems Russia’s actions illegal. What is not clear is whether Russia’s economy can bear the burden of Putin’s objectives in Ukraine.

Regardless of the West’s response to the Crimean crisis, the economic damage to Russia will be vast. First, there are the direct costs of military operations and of supporting the Crimean regime and its woefully inefficient economy (which has been heavily subsidized by Ukraine’s government for years.) Given the uncertainty surrounding Crimea’s future status, these costs are difficult to estimate, though they are most likely to total several billion dollars per year.

A direct cost of this magnitude amounts to less than 0.5% of Russia’s GDP. While not trivial, Russia can afford it. Russia just spent $50 billion dollars on the Sochi Olympics and plans to spend even more for the 2018 World Cup. It was prepared to lend $15 billion to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s government and to provide $8 billion annually in gas subsidies.

Then there are the costs related to the impact of sanctions on trade and investment. Though the scope of the sanctions remains uncertain, the effect could be enormous. Annual inward foreign direct investment is estimated to have reached $80 billion in 2013. A significant decline in FDI – which brings not only money but also modern technology and managerial skills – would hit Russia’s long-term economic growth hard. And denying Russian banks and firms access to the US (and possibly European) banking system – the harshest sanction applied to Iran – would have a devastating impact.