Ukraine crisis: Heads, Vladimir Putin wins -- tails, Russia loses?

A new coin commemorates Russia's "reunification" with Crimea -- but at what cost to the economy?

Story highlights

  • Russia mints coin to commemorate "reunification" with Ukraine's Crimea region
  • Coin features Russian President Vladimir Putin on one side, and Crimea map on other
  • Experts say Russia's involvement in Ukraine's ongoing crisis is hurting Russian economy
  • Standard and Poor's cut Russia's credit rating to one level above junk on Friday

This week a Russian foundry minted a new coin to mark Russia's "reunification" with Ukraine's Crimea region. Vladimir Putin's portrait was on one side, and a map of Crimea on the other.

Many, especially outside Russia, would dispute the use of the word "reunification." But few would dispute that the coin's symbolism goes way beyond Russian patriotism over a small Black Sea peninsula.

Many Russians, particularly those who remember life in the Soviet times, and under former President Boris Yeltsin, see the mark of Putin on all of their coins. When he took over the presidency in the final hours of the last millennium, Russia was licking some serious wounds from the crash of 1998. In its World Economic Outlook in October 1999, the IMF observed: "Continuing economic and political uncertainties have led to further capital flight and a sharp decline in foreign investment." Ring any bells?

Putin set about treating those wounds. He slashed income and corporate tax and cut red tape. Aided by rising oil prices, growth climbed sharply, averaging 7% over the next eight years. Russians had money and the opportunity to make more. High-end shops started to appear in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and many people travelled overseas. Prosperity and stability were prized above all else. Even democracy.

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14 years later, the latest World Economic Outlook from the IMF contained unnerving parallels to 1999. Russian growth prospects were downgraded because of "geopolitical risks". The IMF noted that "Investment had already been weak, reflecting in part policy uncertainty." Standard and Poor's echoed that on Friday as it cut Russia's credit rating to one level above junk.

To call this full circle would be far too optimistic. In 1999 Russia was already coming out of a decline when Putin took the reins. Now it may be on a slippery slope.

While the economy is insulated by an estimated $477 billion in foreign currency reserves, sanctions could still hit hard, and there's a bigger problem: perception.

    Andrei Konoplyanik, an advisor to Gazprom Export, says he is worried ratings downgrades and lowered forecasts "immediately create additional nervousness in the investment community." Russia may not need foreign approval, but it does need foreign money.

    In a 2008 speech laying out Russia's goals up to 2020, Putin said: "I stress that we have no intention of trying to take anything away from anyone else. We are a self-sufficient country. And we have no intention of closing ourselves off from the outside world and living in isolation."

    It turns out he does -- but is Putin prepared to sacrifice whatever economic stability Russia has left in the process?

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