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Econographics June 17, 2022

Where do the “fence-sitters” sit on trade with Russia?

By Josh Lipsky, Sophia Busch

On March 2, the United Nations held a vote demanding Russia’s unconditional withdrawal from Ukraine. 35 countries abstained, including Vietnam, India, China, and the Republic of South Africa. A few weeks later, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called out these “fence-sitters” in a special address at the Atlantic Council. She warned any companies or countries tempted to fill the vacuum left by the West that “the unified coalition of sanctioning countries will not be indifferent to actions that undermine the sanctions we’ve put in place.” Still, months later, state-owned oil refineries in India continue to pursue supply contracts for cheap Russian oil, and Chinese officials pronounce that Western attempts at coercion will fail to impact their economic ties. The West’s influence appears shaky. Nonetheless, the global economic reality has shifted out of Russia’s favor. At least in terms of trade, these seemingly neutral countries aren’t enabling Russia as much as their public positions might suggest:

Russia’s imports decreased by 9.7% from February to March 2022, including losses from many of Russia’s top trade partners and politically neutral countries. Shipping container traffic to Russia decreased by 50% in March in St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, and Novorossiysk, Russia’s most highly-trafficked ports. This decrease in exports to Russia is a predictable symptom of war, but there are more factors in play. Initially, impediments to trade began in February and March as the ruble rapidly devalued, causing Russian buyers to become reluctant or unable to complete payments. Suppliers struggled to execute transactions following Russia’s cutoff from the SWIFT system, and international shipping ceased to service goods to Russia. Now, Russia’s maritime sector broadly faces issues with ship certification and insurance coverage. Some companies have inadvertently abandoned or scaled back business with Russia due to disrupted trade routes and a lack of input materials. The Russian economy as a whole has contracted since the invasion, impeding its purchasing and import abilities. 

Some exporters, like Pakistan, Brazil, and Jordan, have not experienced the same drops in trade with Russia as countries like Vietnam or India. The answer to this discrepancy lies in the exports themselves: Brazil’s exports to Russia are driven primarily by soybeans, cow meat, and ground nuts. Another supposed “fence-sitter,” Pakistan, is in a similar situation, with citrus as its top export to Russia. Agricultural products aren’t subject to sanctions, so these exports to Russia may continue unmarred. On the other hand, the majority of India, Vietnam, and China’s exports to Russia are technological products, which are more likely to be caught in the crossfire of Western sanctions. Companies face a choice: comply with sanctions and lose business with Russia, or risk losing business with the US. 

India’s trading relationship with the US is 12 times the size of its relationship with Russia, meaning that it’s in companies’ best interests to prioritize trade with the US. As a result, Indian companies such as Tata Steel have withdrawn or paused business with Russia. Meanwhile, the State Bank of India, the country’s largest lender, has blocked transactions with any entities on EU, US, or UN sanctions lists, irrespective of currency, out of fear that such transactions could lead to sanctions on the bank. Even China, Russia’s supposed economic lifeline, shaved off 30% from its exports to Russia in the past two months, before the worst of its lockdowns hit. The Chinese government, though pushing back against the West politically, has issued subtle warnings to Chinese companies to proceed with caution rather than violate sanctions and get caught in the crossfire between Russia and the West. Chinese banks have suspended business with Russia, and some tech companies including Lenovo Group Ltd. and Xiaomi Corp, SZ DJI Technology Co. have quietly scaled back or paused operations. So while foreign ministers offer even-handed statements, finance ministers are quietly signaling that Russia may become an increasingly risky place to invest.

One risk beyond sanctions involves reputational hazards. Chinese auto company Geely, for example, suspended its operations in Russia in March in order to evaluate potential reputational hazards to the brand. These reputational risks are legitimate, exemplified by Ukrainian vice prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov publicly calling on Chinese company DJI to halt its business in Russia.

Although countries and businesses face a range of reasons to halt business with Russia, the throughline is the West’s economic weight, which, through sanctions, has made transacting with Russia too risky and unwieldy. However, it’s possible that as time goes on, firms may find ways to circumvent the restrictions sanctions impose. Following the SWIFT cut-off, Indian firms were initially unable to purchase oil from Russia, but have since begun using spot deals to buy it at a discount. If that is any indication, workarounds may be possible, and there is a high incentive for their pursuit. But as sanctions lists continue to expand and come into effect, the risks of noncompliance will symmetrically increase. Despite the political statements of many “neutral” countries, the West’s desired outcome to punish Russia economically seems to be achieving global buy-in.

Josh Lipsky is the director of the GeoEconomics Center.
Sophia Busch is a Program Assistant with the GeoEconomics Center.

At the intersection of economics, finance, and foreign policy, the GeoEconomics Center is a translation hub with the goal of helping shape a better global economic future.

Related Experts: Josh Lipsky and Sophia Busch

Image: Cargo ship terminal, Unloading crane of cargo ship terminal, Industrial port with containers and container ship.