07.12.22 Review

Statistical Illusion: Russia has mostly restored its imports, but not the right one, and not from the right places

In monetary terms, the volume of Russian imports in autumn has returned to the pre-war levels after a collapse in spring, according to calculations by "Novaya Gazeta. Europe." The volume of trade with "unfriendly" (i.e., Western) countries almost halved, and with "friendly" countries has increased several times. However, the recovery is observed in a monetary volume, but not in quantity or quality. Imports have become more expensive due to the logistical complications and have changed qualitatively: this recovery happens due to a growth of the finished goods and consumer goods, volumes, while supplies of machinery, equipment, and intermediate goods are far from being recovered. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, even in monetary terms, Russian imports at the end of summer were still 25% lower than last year. At the same time, St. Petersburg container port loading is less than 10% of last year's, while in Vladivostok it has increased. In addition, the trend of declining imports emerged in autumn once again.

Data research by "Novaya Gazeta. Europe" has discovered that the level of Russian imports had almost returned to its pre-war figures. According to "Novaya Gazeta", imports fell by 40% in March 2022, and in April they had decreased by half. Examples of such a sharp import collapse were observed in 2015-2016, but back then it was caused by a drop in oil prices, which led to the ruble's weakening, making foreign goods too expensive for the Russian buyer. This year, on the contrary, energy prices reached record highs, while imports decreased due to the sanctions — a ban on the supply of a wide range of goods and difficulties with payment and logistics. 

The reduction of imports against the background of "high" exports led to a record budget surplus and, consequently, to the ruble's strengthening. In its turn, the strong ruble made it possible to restore the volume of imports within a short time. According to the "Novaya Gazeta" estimates, by August, supplies to Russia were only 10.7% lower than in August 2021, which is approximately the same as in 2019-2020. The newspaper cites the calculations of the "Promsvyazbank" analysts based on VAT collections, according to which in October imports of goods and services in monetary terms were only 5% less than a year ago.

However, the import recovery occurred primarily in monetary terms, but not in quantitative and qualitative. Before February 24, half of Russia's imports came from the EU (Moscow's main trading partner before February 24), the United States, Korea, and Japan. Supplies from these countries halved and remained at this level almost unchanged throughout the year. Russian businesses were mostly importing high-tech products, machine tools, equipment, and components from these states. The recovery of imports in monetary terms came primarily due to supplies of consumer goods from China, the Eurasian Economic Union, and Turkey. 

In March this year, Minsk became the second biggest importer to Russia after Beijing. Belarus was exporting over $2 billion worth of goods to Russia every month. Armenian exports increased 2.4 times and supplies from Kazakhstan went up by 13%. The boom in sales of washing machines, car parts, refrigerators, and other consumer goods in the Eurasian Economic Union suggests that exports to Russia have grown at the expense of re-imports from "unfriendly" countries. The costs of supplying such products to Russia have increased due to gray schemes and resale. Russia used to be the hub through which European imports were dispersed across the Eurasian Economic Union countries, but now this flow has been reversed.

At the same time, according to "Novaya Gazeta ", Russian imports of industrial equipment, transport, and raw materials have not recovered. Such shipments from unfriendly countries have almost halved, while shipments from China and Turkey have slightly increased. "Novaya Gazeta" gives some examples: in January-August the supply of industrial equipment from the EU fell by $10.5 billion, and China and Turkey were able to substitute only $800 million; the supply of cars and tractors from Europe dropped by $4.3 billion, while China increased its exports by only $400 million.

The Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel) publishes monthly statistics on international trade and turnover in major ports around the world. Their calculations partly, but not completely, correspond to the "Novaya Gazeta" study. According to their November report, in the summer of 2021, the EU was Russia's most important trading partner. Now China has taken the lead. Compared with the previous year, from March to November the EU exported 43% fewer goods to Russia than in the same period last year, while China, on the contrary, exported 23% more. However, the growth of Chinese exports to Russia unexpectedly slowed down in September. Vincent Stamer, head of the Kiel Trade Indicator, believes that increasing imports from China to Russia will become more difficult every month due to congested transport corridors and the inability to quickly build new ones. 

Beijing cannot fully replace declining imports from Europe, either in quantitative or qualitative terms. In an October Kiel Institute report, based on an export data analysis of 57 countries, it was calculated that the level of Russian imports in the three summer months of 2022 was still 24% lower than in the summer of 2021. These estimates are almost two times lower than the results of the "Novaya Gazeta" study, according to which the volume of imports in August 2022 was only 10.7% lower than in August 2021. 

The Kiel Institute's data on the turnover of Russian ports demonstrate a dramatic change in the import geography. After February 24, there was a sharp drop in cargo unloading in all Russian seaports. St. Petersburg's port, which in 2021 was the largest container port of Russia and the most important channel of trade with Europe, was affected the most. Throughout 2022, its loading decreased due to the sanctions, and in October amounted to less than 10% of the previous year's October level. The largest Black Sea port, Novorossiysk, was loaded at only 50% of last year's figure. There was an increase in trade turnover here during the summer and autumn as a result of grain shipments and the growth of trade with Asian countries. The port of Vladivostok also have seen a sharp decline in trade turnover after February 24, but then the volumes began to recover, and in autumn they exceeded the pre-war levels. 

According to the Kiel Institute estimates, in the autumn months the trend of import reduction was outlined again: +0.2% against the previous month in September, -0.4% — in October, -4.4% — in November. The data on the recovery of imports into Russia is largely a statistical illusion, which hides deep structural changes: imports of high-tech and investment goods, necessary for the development of the economy, have not recovered; they are imported into the country in limited quantities, in the re-export mode, and with additional costs.