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Soldiers of the Ukrainian army on the front line during the Joint Forces Operation in Donbass area, Luhansk region, Ukraine, on June 2018.

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A high-profile prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine is being seen as a boost to the possible resumption of peace talks, but some experts are tempering those hopes.

Ambassador Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, told CNBC Wednesday that “there is a long way to go before there would be any normalization between the two countries.”

“Russia’s invasion, occupation, and claimed annexation of Crimea will never be accepted by Ukraine,” Volker, who is also the executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, told CNBC. “That said, it is possible to make progress toward peace in Eastern Ukraine.”

“This prisoner exchange is a good step, that could pave the way for further exchanges, a more durable cease-fire, withdrawal of heavy weapons and — ideally — a decision by Russia to proceed with implementing the Minsk agreements. If so, it would tremendously improve the lives of the local population,” he added.

On Saturday, a possible thawing of frosty relations between the two neighbors came about after Russia and Ukraine exchanged a total of 70 prisoners, including Ukrainian sailors that were detained in November 2018 following a skirmish in the Kerch Strait.

The incident in the strait was just one of a number of incidents reflecting heightened tensions between the countries since 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its role in a pro-Russian uprising in the Donbass region in the east of the country.

The uprising prompted Russian-backed separatists within the Donbass to proclaim two “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk, exacerbating the destabilization of (and tensions with) Ukraine. It has also led to Russia becoming something of a pariah in the international community and it is still subject to sanctions for its actions.

What’s happened?

The conflict in the Donbass region is now in its fifth year, although it has been characterized more by regular skirmishes than outright war. Nonetheless, the human cost has been high. Over 13,000 people (including civilians and combatants from both sides) have died since 2014, according to the United Nations, and hostilities have affected 3.9 million civilians living in the region.

Efforts by France and Germany in 2015 to broker a cease-fire and peace deal, known as the Minsk agreements, were widely seen to have failed with both Russia and Ukraine accusing each other of failing to meet the conditions of the deal.

Against a backdrop of bitter relations, a lot of focus has been on how the new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and TV star by trade, would handle Russia after he campaigned on a pledge to end the conflict in the Donbass region. During his inauguration, Zelensky said that the government’s “first task is to achieve a cease-fire in Donbass.”

‘Normalization’ of Ukraine-Russia relations?

Zelensky said Saturday that all steps must be taken “to finish this horrible war,” Reuters reported, while Russian President Vladimir Putin said the swap would be “a good step towards the normalization of relations.”

Even President Donald Trump got enthusiastic, tweeting his approval and his hope for peace.

Experts are cynical, however. Otilia Dhand, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence, is also not convinced that the exchange means conflict resolution, noting that there are major barriers to peace in place.

“First, this was just another (though high-profile) among several exchanges of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia under the 2015 Minsk cease-fire agreement,” she said in a note Tuesday.

“Second, the political conditions of the cease-fire agreement require constitutional reform in Ukraine prior to the restoration of Kyiv’s territorial control. Separatists would likely demand decision-making powers in foreign policy to prevent any possibility of Ukraine’s westward economic and security integration, which remains unacceptable for Kyiv.”

Nonetheless, Dhand noted that the recent increase in bilateral activity suggests that some form of talks over the Donbas conflict will likely take place soon, with both sides having vested interests in a resolution.

“Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, seeks a substantial political victory to foster his position in the political system … Russia seeks a normalization of relations with the EU and the U.S., the easing of sanctions and the return to the global political stage,” she said.

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Softbank’s Masayoshi Son in favor of ousting WeWork CEO Adam Neumann

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Adam Neumann, co-founder and chief executive officer of WeWork, in April 2018.

Jackal Pan | Visual China Group | Getty Images

SoftBank Group’s Masayoshi Son is in favor of removing WeWork’s Adam Neumann as CEO, as the company’s directors plan to meet as soon as this week to propose Neumann step down, according to a person familiar with the matter. Spokesmen for both SoftBank and WeWork declined to comment.

While the details of a board meeting haven’t been scheduled, at least some members of the WeWork board that aren’t affiliated with SoftBank are aligned with Neumann to keep him as CEO, said two people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named because the discussions are private. SoftBank and its associated Vision Fund is WeWork’s largest external shareholder.

WeWork views Son’s move against Neumann as an effort to prevent the company from going public, one of the people said. If WeWork doesn’t go public, it would prevent a writedown for SoftBank after valuing the company at $47 billion earlier this year. WeWork has had trouble getting a valuation of more than $20 billion with potential public investors, CNBC has reported.

Still, SoftBank views the writedown as both small in size and significance and believes a change in leadership would be for the long term health of the company, according to someone familiar with SoftBank’s thinking. 

The proposal follows a tumultuous week in which WeWork postponed its IPO roadshow, and an expose on Neumann in the Journal revealed he had once been forced to reschedule a private plane trip after the crew found marijuana. The CEO also expressed interest in becoming Israel’s prime minister and the president of the world, living forever, and becoming the world’s first trillionaire.

WeWork’s IPO filing revealed massive losses and an unusually complex governing structure that concentrated power in Neumann’s hands, investors balked and the proposed price of the IPO dropped to as little as $15 billion.

The company lost $1.9 billion last year and analysts expect that the company is on pace to run through its remaining cash on hand at some point next year.

There is a playbook of sorts for removing a controversial founder-CEO before going public. Benchmark Capital successfully orchestrated a shareholder revolt that ousted Travis Kalanick before Uber went public. SoftBank later bought a 15% stake in Uber which included a provision that Kalanick could not fill three board seats on his own, thus helping him maintain broader control of the company’s future.

It’s unclear if Benchmark is leading the effort to remove Neumann.

The board is expected to meet sometime next week and potentially discuss making Neumann WeWork’s nonexecutive chairman.

Removing Neumann is a difficult decision for Son, who has long believed in WeWork and Neumann’s vision to quickly expand the company.

According to the Journal, SoftBank was likely going to buy roughly $1 billion in stock in WeWork’s initial public offering, though that purchase wasn’t enough to keep the company’s listing on track.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that WeWork postponed its IPO this week.

—Emma Newburger contributed to this report.

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NYSE owner ICE launches deliverable bitcoin futures contracts

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Intercontinental Exchange, the owner of the New York Stock Exchange, launched its bitcoin futures contracts late Sunday, in a move aimed at enticing investors who have hesitated about trading the cryptocurrency.

The first trade in the new contracts was executed on ICE’s futures exchange at 8:02 p.m. ET at a price of $10,115, Bakkt, the firm behind the contracts, said in a Twitter post. Bakkt is an ICE-backed venture which aims to make trading and paying with cryptocurrencies viable for retail and institutional investors alike.

The futures are physically deliverable, meaning they pay out in bitcoin upon settlement. That’s different to ICE competitor CME Group, which introduced its own futures contracts for the digital currency in 2017 which paid out in cash. Physical settlement is used for other markets like bonds, oil, cattle and metals.

Cryptocurrency fans will hope ICE’s bitcoin futures, which are federally regulated, can provide some much-needed legitimacy to an asset class that has been mired in controversy following illicit activity in the still nascent industry.

Bitcoin is also known for its wild volatility — for example, a late 2017 bubble which saw prices rise close to $20,000 burst the following year. Since then, the cryptocurrency has been on the rise this year, with experts attributing the price jump to big firms like ICE and Facebook, with its planned libra cryptocurrency, getting involved in the space.

Futures contracts, legal agreements to buy or sell a commodity at a certain price and time, are a way for investors to bet on whether the underlying asset’s value will rise or fall. In the ICE’s case, investors can trade in daily or monthly futures, according to its website.

Bakkt, which partnered with ICE to launch the derivatives, also counts Microsoft venture arm M12 and Boston Consulting Group as investors. The company teamed up with coffee chain Starbucks last year to allow people and institutions to buy, sell, store and send cryptocurrencies.

Attempts at launching bitcoin futures have been faced with problems in the past. Cboe Global Markets, which launched its own contracts in late 2017, said earlier this year that it would stop adding new ones. Meanwhile, U.S. firm LedgerX was forced to backtrack from a launch of physically settled bitcoin futures after a key markets regulator said it had “not yet been approved.”

ICE’s move was met with a mostly tepid reaction in spot markets, with bitcoin’s price rising just 0.5% higher to about $9,950.

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‘Disaster’ for Hong Kong if it loses status as financial center: China Citic Capital

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If Hong Kong loses its status as one of Asia’s top financial centers, it would be disastrous for the Asian financial hub, said the founder and chief executive officer of Citic Capital.

There is “no lack of competition for financial centers,” said Zhang Yichen, who is also chairman at the investment firm — a Hong Kong-based alternative investment arm of the Chinese financial conglomerate Citic Group.

Investors can turn to other cities like Singapore, Tokyo and Shanghai to access global capital markets, he told CNBC’s Amanda Drury at the Singapore Summit on Saturday.

“I think if Hong Kong doesn’t shape up, you shouldn’t have a sense of entitlement (that) it has to be the financial center,” he said. If the territory should lose that status, it “spells disaster because that’s the only industry these days that’s competitive.”

Protests in Hong Kong erupted more than three months ago over a now-withdrawn extradition bill, which would have paved the way for suspects in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China for trial. While the pro-democracy protests started out as relatively peaceful in June, they have since turned increasingly violent.

Hong Kong protestors on Sunday trampled on a Chinese flag, vandalized a subway station and set fire across a wide street, the Associated Press reported.

I don’t believe Shanghai and other Chinese cities can actually replace Hong Kong … If (Hong Kong) squanders that on its own, it’ll be a shame.

Zhang Yichen

Citic Capital

Formerly a British colony, Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997. It is one of China’s special administrative regions and is governed under the “one country, two systems” principle, which gives its citizens certain economic and legal freedoms not given in mainland China.

Zhang said the city has its advantages over other Chinese cities like Shanghai because of the “one country, two systems” policy.

Hong Kong’s legal system is similar to what is followed in a lot of countries around the world, which gives investors a certain level of comfort, he said. In addition to that, its proximity to the Chinese mainland is another plus point for investors, he added.

“From that perspective, I don’t believe Shanghai and other Chinese cities can actually replace Hong Kong,” he said. “If (Hong Kong) squanders that on its own, it’ll be a shame.”

However, the violence and chaos have crippled the city and disrupted daily life, and in turn, hurt businesses and dented investor sentiment.

Zhang said the protests have not affected Citic Capital’s business since it invests mostly either in China or around the world. “Hong Kong is just a base for us where a lot of our senior colleagues live and work,” he added.

Citic Capital says on its website it manages more than $26 billion of capital. Last month, the firm said it raised $2.8 billion in its fourth China buyout fund and would look at China-focused investment opportunities in sectors such as consumer, health care and technology.

Reuters and CNBC’s Grace Shao contributed to this report.

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