As Russia threatens war in Ukraine, the strength of the West’s response is up for debate

Good morning. David Meyer here in Berlin, filling in for Alan.

After a Putin-induced dip yesterday, the markets seem to be recovering a little this morning. The Shanghai Composite rose by 0.9% and the Hang Seng by 0.6%, the Stoxx Europe 600 is up 0.7% at the time of publication, and U.S. futures look comparable, which is nice as the S&P 500 entered correction territory yesterday. Oil futures are down a little, as are U.S. natural gas futures (though European gas futures, which surged nearly 10% yesterday, started the day with another jump of around 5%).

It scarcely needs saying that this relative tranquility does not mean all is well in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin, who has now received Russian lawmakers’ approval for the foreign use of force, has also decided that Russia’s recognition of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics extends to the borders proposed by their puppet leaders. That means he recognizes their claim to territory in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that is currently controlled by Kyiv—a fact that plainly sets the stage for mask-off clashes between Russian and Ukrainian forces.

Putin has also declared an end to diplomacy and given Ukraine an ultimatum demanding its “demilitarization”—in other words, its capitulation. The invasion is already underway, and the war appears to be about to ignite.

Which brings me, with no small amount of regret, to a trip-wire subject I usually try to avoid from my desk here in Germany: American politics. Specifically, the talking point (mentioned to me in some reader feedback yesterday) that this is all happening because of President Joe Biden’s “weakness.”

This thesis is a jumble of strands; some too partisan and silly to mention here, but some that raise serious points. For example, there’s a strong case for saying the Obama administration blew it by imposing weak sanctions on Russia over 2014’s annexation of Crimea, thus encouraging Putin to take another bite—though bear in mind that Putin’s prototype military adventure, in Georgia’s South Ossetia region in 2008, drew an even weaker response from the Bush administration.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said a few days ago that Biden brought Europe to the brink of war by waiving sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. That may have sent the wrong signal to Putin, but it was also a sop to Germany, a key U.S. ally in this situation, and Germany’s abrupt shelving of Nord Stream 2 yesterday could be seen as a payoff for Biden’s cooperative gesture.

The fact is, the U.S. and its allies have remained pretty much in lockstep when it comes to the strength of their Russian responses. When the U.S. has been weak, so has Europe. Many argue the Western response to the start of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has also been too weak, but either way the U.S. and EU playbooks are again very similar: slap sanctions on a few Russian banks, elites, and lawmakers, and make it impossible for Russia to trade new (but not old) debt on Western markets. Here’s UBS chief economist Paul Donovan’s take on that this morning:

Some have described sanctions against Russia as “more aggressive.” This is difficult to argue for the macroeconomic impact. Germany closed a pipeline that was not open. Japan banned sovereign debt issuance that does not take place. The U.S. pledged to stop the Russian government accessing international finance they do not really need. The U.K. has focused on threatening to do more in the future. Financial market reactions are more about fear of future action than pricing in current action.

That’s the thing: There’s more action to come. Future historians will be better placed to judge whether it was such a bright idea to hold back some sanctions in the hope of retaining some leverage over Putin—it’s certainly not what the U.S. telegraphed earlier this month, and personally I think Putin is way past caring anyway—but the situation is so fluid and the risk of full-on war so high that we could easily see stronger sanctions imposed within days. If they include truly serious steps like cutting Russia off from the global financial system, that would make the current “weakness” debate moot. But until then, it’s a crucial debate to be having.

More news below.

David Meyer


Barclays payouts

Former Barclays CEO Jes Staley is being denied millions of pounds in payouts while U.K. regulators probe his ties to Jeffrey Epstein. According to Barclays’s 2021 annual report, the remuneration committee has suspended “the vesting of all of Staley’s unvested awards, pending further developments in respect of the regulatory and legal proceedings related to” the investigation. Fortune

CEO tweets

Tweets from the CEOs of crypto exchanges Kraken and Coinbase have been flagged to the Canadian cops by the country’s securities regulator. In the tweets, Kraken’s Jesse Powell and Coinbase’s Brian Armstrong criticized emergency orders aimed at ending the “Freedom Convoy” trucker protests against COVID measures. Fortune

Bitcoin mining

Intel has released a chip that is designed for Bitcoin mining rigs. Observers say having a U.S.-based rather than Chinese manufacturer for such gear could bring many advantages to miners, particularly in terms of predictable pricing. Fortune

Chip shortage

Meanwhile, the ongoing general chip shortage led Stellantis (the carmaker formed by the merger of Peugeot and Fiat Chrysler) to focus on its most profitable cars. The decision led to smaller European shipments but higher revenues. Financial Times


Musk and Biden

Elon Musk is still convinced President Biden is ignoring him. As Fortune’s Nicholas Gordon explains: “The White House’s apparent indifference to Tesla has been a sticking point for the CEO and his fans for months. Musk has complained that Biden tends to tout long-established automakers like General Motors and Ford Motor as the future of American car manufacturing—not Tesla.” Fortune

More perks

Employers are turning to perks as they try to fend off the “Great Resignation.” According to a new survey conducted by the Harris poll for Fortune, just over half of workers say their employers have added new benefits or improved existing benefits over the past six months. Here’s a breakdown of what kind of perks we’re talking about. Fortune

Hong Kong to Singapore

Some companies are fleeing Hong Kong because of its draconian COVID measures, and their top destination appears to be Singapore. As Simon Willis explains in this piece for Fortune, the city-state provides many of the same advantages that Hong Kong does, but it also comes with its own difficulties, such as recently tightened controls on who can enter the country. Fortune


The pandemic has made lunch a relatively boring meal for people, as Fortune’s Beth Kowitt explains: “The data shows that lunch boredom comes not from the food but the setting. Dinner is having a renaissance because we’re now more likely to eat it with our families than we were pre-pandemic. Lunch is a dud because we’re more likely to eat it alone, without our colleagues.” Fortune

This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.

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