How Putin has already weakened Ukraine's economy

Russia's President Vladimir Putin has succeeded in destabilizing Ukraine and making clear that Russia could wreck the country's economy. PHOTO: NYTIMES

KYIV (NYTIMES) - Pavlo Kaliuk, a freelance property broker in Ukraine's capital, used to sell and rent properties to clients from the United States, France, Germany and Israel. Then in November, when Russia first began posting troops along the country's border, the deals quickly dried up.

"In Kyiv, if you are talking about apartments which are medium level or higher, most deals are on pause because we are really not sure what will happen tomorrow," said Kaliuk, 34.

Ukraine, which has been at war with Russia since 2014, is once again in a state of fearful suspended animation. The United States estimates that a combined 190,000 Russian troops and Moscow-backed secessionists are encircling the country and inside separatist-held territory as President Joe Biden and other Western leaders warn that an invasion or attack could happen any day and leave tens of thousands of people wounded or killed.

Without outright declaring war or taking action that would trigger the harsh sanctions promised by the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin has once again succeeded in destabilising Ukraine and making clear that Russia could wreck the country's economy.

The evacuation announced last week of US, British and Canadian citizens has led to panic. Several international airlines have stopped flights into the country. Russian naval exercises in the Black Sea have exposed the vulnerability of Ukraine's critical ports for commercial shipping.

As for real estate?

"The number of requests is fewer and fewer every day," Kaliuk said.

The anxiety coursing through Kyiv is exactly what Putin hopes to achieve, according to Pavlo Kukhta, an adviser to Ukraine's minister of energy. "What they want to do is the equivalent of winning the war without firing a single bullet, by causing massive panic here," Kukhta said.

Timofiy Mylovanov, president of the Kyiv School of Economics and a former minister of economic development, said his institution has estimated that the crisis has already cost Ukraine "several billion dollars", just in the past few weeks. War or a long siege would only worsen the situation.

"You either get an invasion or your economy hurts," he said.

The first major blow came on Monday (Feb 14) when two Ukrainian airlines said they were unable to acquire insurance for their flights, forcing Ukraine's government to create a US$592 million (S$797 million) insurance fund to keep planes flying.

On Feb 11, London-based insurers had warned aviation companies that they would be unable to insure flights to Ukraine or those flying above its airspace. KLM Airlines, a Dutch company, responded by saying it would halt flights. Many Dutch passengers were onboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 when it was shot down above territory controlled by pro-Moscow rebels in 2014. German airline Lufthansa said it was considering a suspension.

On Tuesday, Ukraine was subjected to a massive cyberattack, as hackers flooded the servers hosting websites until the servers became overloaded and shut down. Officials blamed Russia, although the Kremlin denied involvement. Still, Ukrainian officials said it was the largest distributed denial-of-service attack in the country's history and targeted government ministries and state banks.

"They want people to start running on the banks," Kukhta said. "The war is a hybrid the Russians are playing in several domains, the economy included."

Oshchadbank was hit by a cyberattack on Feb 15, 2022, along with another Ukrainian bank. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Earlier in the week, Irina Gorovaya and other entrepreneurs in Kyiv organised a "Stay In Ukraine" campaign to try to rally people behind local businesses that are being hit by the economic upheaval. Gorovaya, CEO of Mozgi Group, a creative agency, said festivals and other events were losing money rapidly because people are too hesitant to buy tickets.

"People are sitting at home thinking about what will come tomorrow," she said.

On Ukraine's southern coastline, the arrival of the Russian navy to conduct exercises in the Black Sea has been another reminder of Ukraine's vulnerability, militarily and economically, since in the event of war the country's critical ports could face a blockade. So far, Russia has allowed a corridor to remain open for commercial shipping, and there have been no disruptions to operations at Ukrainian ports.

A retired US Army lieutenant general, Ben Hodges, recently compared the Russian land and naval forces encircling the country to "a boa constrictor around Ukraine, choking its economy and further threatening its sovereignty".

The Kremlin aims "to make Ukraine a failed state, which they believe they can achieve by applying constant pressure", he posted on Twitter, "without actually launching a new offensive".

But the US response to the crisis has also infuriated some people, whether by creating panic with alarmist warnings of an imminent invasion or the decision to evacuate some embassy staff from Kyiv and set up a temporary office in the western city of Lviv, close to the border with Poland.

"When someone decides to move the embassy to Lviv, they must understand that such news will cost the Ukrainian economy several hundred million dollars," David Arakhamia, leader of the governing Servant of the People party, said in a television interview, adding: "Every day we count the losses of the economy. We can't borrow in foreign markets because the rates there are crazy. Many exporters refuse us."

Olena Bilan, chief economist of Dragon Capital, an investment firm, said Ukraine's economy had been expected to grow by almost 4 per cent this year, but the military crisis has shaved that predication almost by half.

Even so, Bilan said, Ukraine is far better prepared economically than when Russian aggression began in 2014. Its foreign currency reserves are at historic highs, and it has largely decoupled its economy from Russia, aside from imports of oil and coking coal for the steel industry.

Ukraine is also preparing to separate itself from the Russian power grid, said Kukhta, and financial assistance from the European Union and the United States is helping to reassure investors and worried insurance companies.

"We live in such conditions which are not so stable for eight years already," said Kaliuk, the real estate agent. "I've gotten used to it and try to be flexible."

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