Authors: Dr. Matthew Crosston , Andy Deahn
Russian President Vladimir Putin has loudly projected that his nation and the other Caspian nations will leave the dollar behind. Mr. Putin has exclaimed that the United States runs a “Dollar dictatorship” when it comes to global market oil prices and affirms that his nation’s currency will not become a victim subjected to its rule.
In order to combat this “dictatorship” attempts have been made to enhance relations with China in order to integrate both the ruble and the yuan into the global market more dominantly. His belief is that in doing so he will weaken the dollar while strengthening both national currencies. However, Mr. Putin is potentially committing a mistake, as he is generally associating a strong currency with national strength and views the decline in the ruble’s value as an offense against Russia’s prowess. These are clearly political statements used to project an aura of strength that disregard the economic realities facing the Kremlin. Rather than take meaningful counter-actions so as to create positive momentum and strong economic stimuli, Putin sometimes seems more focused on capitalizing on his celebrity status to ‘tweak the American eagle’ as it were. Putin’s “projection” as stated above can thus be observed as an attempt to manufacture a sense of Russian exceptionalism that will counter the ‘insult’ that he considers as a constant American exceptionalism on the global stage. However, these geopolitical playground battles do not outweigh the realities of the world economy and how Russia needs to create serious policies to deal with sanctions and weak oil prices.
While China is Russia’s largest trading partner and has become the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels — a vital aspect to Russian economic health — the Chinese financial crisis that occurred in August 2015 has weakened the Yuan, consequently placing increased pressure on the Russian economy as well. The Chinese economic meltdown and the resultant devaluation of the Yuan held global implications. From Wall Street to Venezuela to Saudi Arabia, economic downturns were observed. On Wall Street the drop in the stock market created panic among brokers/investors and in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela a drop in oil prices impacted their economies rather severely, given both have bet some of their financial futures on China’s continual thirst for commodity imports. Russia, however, which exports approximately 14 percent of its annual oil production to China, has a lot more to lose from the Chinese economic decline. This is because oil and natural gas are at the heart of the Russian economy. These commodities account for over 75 percent of export revenues and over 50 percent of government budgetary resources. The Russian ruble, which is directly linked to global oil prices, has been steadily decreasing in value throughout the last 12 months. This direct link is identified through the correlating data of the market price for oil and the value of the ruble to the U.S. dollar. For example, the market price for oil dropped from $104 USD per barrel to around $50 USD per barrel from September 2014 to September 2015. At the same time the value of the ruble, which in the beginning of September 2014 was 36 RUB to 1 USD, had slipped by September 2015 to 68 RUB to 1 USD—a steep devaluation rate not seen since the 1997 global financial recession.
In addition to having the value of its currency decline, for every dollar that global oil prices drop Russia loses an estimated $2 billion a year in revenues. When combined with other harmful realities like Western sanctions, Russia’s relative dependence upon a singular commodity market, and lavish spending rather than modernizing its energy sector during high oil prices, it is clear that Russia pontificating about a ‘dollar dictatorship’ should not be its focus. Indeed, there is something of a flawed logic in the premise: why does President Putin believe he can leave the dollar behind by tying the punished ruble with the declining Chinese yuan? In the near-term at least this strategy is destined to fail.
One regional influence Russia is also somewhat disregarding (or making too many positive assumptions) in this endeavor and that will potentially become of greater geopolitical importance is the Islamic Republic of Iran, now that the new nuclear accord has been struck and many sanctions lifted. By hedging their bets too heavily on China and disregarding up-to-the-minute regional economic shifts, Russia is possibly inflicting its own monetary wounds while uselessly blame-shifting on America for its economic woes. The lifting of Iranian sanctions would mean that Russia could face a newly invigorated, oil-producing, heavyweight regional competitor, one that could reshape the power balance in the Caspian Sea Region and may not necessarily be willing to be as close an ally to Russia as Russia assumes it will be.
A more economically and politically independent Iran, and its ability to influence regional power shifts, would allow for the other Caspian states to modernize and diversify their economies. This would mean that Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan may finally be able to break free of the Russian influence that has basically engulfed them since the Soviet era by building the Trans-Caspian pipeline. Likewise Kazakhstan, a nation whose economy is also built upon the same commodity market as Russia, may finally be able to lessen the havoc that the Russian currency decline is playing within its own borders. Right now there are few analysts seriously considering these potentialities, both here in the West and within Russia. This is an error. Russia clearly thinks the new nuclear accord will lead only to improved ties and deeper economic prosperity for both itself and Iran. But there is ample historical evidence to consider that an emboldened and newly stabilized Iran simply might not need Russia as much as Russia needs it. This future reality could signal a dramatic change in the Russian-Iranian relationship, and not to Russia’s favor. The longer Moscow assumes this is a geostrategic impossibility and that its only concern is battling the ‘dollar dictatorship,’ then the Kremlin only creates more danger for itself.
We already know that a devalued yuan is further assisting oil prices to drop on a global scale, placing great strain on the Russian economy as well as on some bordering Caspian states. Historically, when the Kremlin feels threatened, it shifts blame to other scapegoats rather than seriously tackling its problems. The current sharp slowdown of Chinese economic growth has already impacted multiple Russian economic sectors, including energy, metallurgy, timber, and agriculture. The future alliance with Iran is not an automatic guarantee. Western sanctions still grind along. The Caspian littorals may see opportunities to loosen Russia’s economic grip over their local economic standings. Clearly, plenty of ‘real’ problems exist. So it would behoove Russia to stop spending time on economic fantasies of ‘dethroning the dollar dictatorship.’ That seems to be the least of its real problems.