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Foreign Trade

Business worries as Russian sanctions mount

The European Union has imposed light sanctions against Russia following the controversial referendum in Crimea. European industry hopes the moves remain limited - and wants close ties to its reliable energy provider.

The Crimean referendum and its consequences will be rippling through financial markets for the near future, particularly in Germany and Austria, stockbrokers warn. Both countries, because of their strong, internationalized economies, are viewed as bridges between the European Union and Eastern Europe.

While politicians are calling for the EU to send Russia a clear signal through sanctions, economists prefer to see symbolic measures, such as travel bans and asset freezes.

"Western countries have no economic incentive to enter into a conflict with Russia," said Jörg Krämmer, chief economist at Germany's Commerzbank. "That's why they're likely to impose sanctions that amount to pinpricks at best."

Downward spiral

Such pinpricking doesn't necessarily have to lead to a vicious downward spiral of sanctions and counter-sanctions, experts note. The crisis has already done enough damage, according to Volker Treier, the foreign trade expert at the German Chamber of Industry and Trade (DIHT). "German-Russian economic relations have already suffered," Treier told DW. "Large investments are being put on hold, and, the occasional contract that was in the pipeline is now being pushed back."

Volker Treier

Trade expert Treier says the Crimean crisis has done enough economic damage already

German industry is extremely concerned about developments in Russia, according to Treier. "We have more than 20 billion euros ($27 billion) invested there," he said.

That said, not all German-Russian business is in danger. Wintershall, a subsidiary of German chemicals producer BASF, plans an asset swap with Russian natural gas giant Gazprom. According to Wintershall CEO Rainer Seele, the companies have received the necessary approvals, and it's now just a matter of implementation. Under the deal, Wintershall will exit its German gas trading and storage business.

That means German gas storage operations will be in the hands of Russians - a disturbing prospect for many, according to Treier. "On the other hand, it's also good in this type of situation to see our mutual economic dependencies grow," he added. That increases the pressure to keep the doors open to diplomacy.

Krämer doesn't expect Russia to turn off the gas tap. "Germany receives one-third of its gas imports from Russia, and, as such, appears to be very dependent," he said. "But there are other countries - in the Middle East and North Africa, for instance - that also offer gas. And the storage facilities here in Germany are full to capacity thanks to the mild winter."

'Reliable partner'

Nor is Johannes Teyssen, CEO of German energy company Eon, overly concerned. Russia, he argues, has been delivering gas reliably and punctually for more than 40 years. There hasn't been one single day, he points out, that the country has used gas as a strategic weapon.

Jörg Krämer

Economist Krämer doesn't expec the Russians to turn off the gas tap

Others, including Krämer, disagree with that sweeping assessment. Russia, he said, "has already used gas as a strategic weapon - but against countries in its immediate sphere of influence, such as Ukraine." With Western countries, on the other hand, Russia has proven to be a reliable supplier.

That's no wonder, considering the country's dependence on gas exports, according to Krämer. "About 70 percent of Russia's export revenues come from energy exports," he said. "Russia is also economically weak, and doesn't want to scare away any of its energy customers in the West."

Despite the Crimean crisis, business continues. On Sunday (16.03.2014), for instance, ailing German energy company RWE announced plans to sell its oil and gas subsidiary Dea to an investor group led by a Russian billionaire - for more than five billion euros.

Against the backdrop of the Crimean crisis, the deal is certain to go under the microscope of concerned policymakers. But RWE doesn't expect to encounter any resistance - Crimean crisis or not.

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