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The Russia-OPEC-America Nexus: Reimagining the Great Oil Game

Brian Hughes

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The geopolitical implication to the sudden fall in oil prices has had broad-reaching ramifications for a number of very powerful countries. Two of those countries, Russia and Saudi Arabia, are the most important energy commodity exporters in the world. The other, the US, is the single most crucial oil importer in the world.

The possibility of Russian fatalism awakening is very real as the country faces tightening sanctions, severely underpriced oil exports, and rapid inflation as military spending has increased. Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s diminishing currency reserves and its military adventurism in Yemen have many questioning how the economy can diversify to stabilize the budget. In the US, shale companies have largely been cannibalized to consolidate power across fewer but larger corporations. At a time when the world is increasingly looking at alternative energies to lower pollution and greenhouse gases, oil industries have drastically lowered prices to the detriment of budgets and investors. The question that looms among these oil producers: who will blink first?

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), controlling over 40% of the global crude oil production, curiously refused to cut production while oil prices were plummeting last summer, further exacerbating the price fall. OPEC stated that the decision was not politically based and that prices were simply returning to ‘normal.’ OPEC’s decision to force prices lower in the wake of the worldwide glut confounded oil market pundits. Many looked to shale oil for a formidable explanation. Producing over 5 million barrels a day, the US shale oil revolution has revitalized the local economies of North Dakota and Texas, while little regulation has allowed companies to produce at prodigious rates. This has lowered US oil imports and softened the influence of OPEC producers on US foreign policy.

While OPEC may have wanted to deliver a severe blow to the shale oil companies, who operate with smaller margins than traditional producers, the simple reality is that OPEC was too late to react. Shale oil production increased since the drastic price collapse last year and has only recently shown signs of stagnation. Large shale oil companies have repeatedly bought previously thriving small shale companies for pennies on the dollar as possible bankruptcies have loomed. This consolidation of the shale industry has provided more oil fields for future exploration to companies that have the capital to wait until prices again rise. While the US shale oil industry only accounts for roughly 6% of the global oil market, OPEC’s decreasing reach into the US market may have initiated the production glut. Thus, while the price decrease has recently slowed the shale oil market, consolidations have kept the industry alive.

The most intriguing geopolitical connection with oil prices collapsing is the Western sanction regime on Russia. As inflation hit the Russian economy and protracted recession weighed on Russian morale, OPEC ramped up production. Similarly, Russia has (as of May 2015) produced more oil since the end of the Soviet era. Interestingly, this economic stand-off brought the two biggest oil-producing countries (Saudi Arabia and Russia) to the bargaining table as Russia considers closer ties to OPEC. This tantalizing prospect of a Russian-OPEC alliance has almost always been an illusion since OPEC’s formation and would drastically increase OPEC’s global power in determining oil prices. OPEC has never really trusted Russia and an alliance may only form out of dire necessity. But that is something the United States would staunchly oppose.

As Iran will likely demand greater regional power responsibility as the lifting of sanctions occur in coming months, Saudi Arabia will find its close Western ties strained. Thus, a closer OPEC relationship with Russia would be a geopolitical conundrum for the Western world as the Middle East once again faces possible political destabilization. Witnessing the difficulties of Russian natural gas dependency in recent conflicts in Ukraine, Georgia, and Estonia, an OPEC-Russian alliance would control nearly half of the world’s oil, with Russia becoming the likely leading producer. This could echo the 1973 oil embargo, a time when OPEC controlled 53% of the world’s oil and subsequently handicapped Western economies. With Russia continually looking for ways to damage Western economies and strengthen its own geopolitical position, more Russian energy control would be deplorable to the West.

Contrary to the OPEC-Russian alliance is the simple fact that such cooperation would further strain interrelations with Western powers and would be a difficult political gamble for Saudi Arabia. As Western economies are projected to continually dwarf that of Russia for the foreseeable future, and with an apparent divide between the US and Saudi Arabia regarding Iran, any further strain would leave Saudi Arabia’s Western relations questionable. However, as China becomes the world’s major oil importer, Saudi Arabia has monopolized the Chinese market and increased Chinese sales 37% in the last year, while every other country lost market share. However, Russia is unlikely to agree with any OPEC policy of lowered production while Saudi Arabia continually strives for dominance in the coveted Chinese market.

While market competition has surely decreased oil prices, it remains the most geopolitically significant commodity in the world by all measures. In this environment of little policy clarification and OPEC’s failure to halt shale oil production, Russia has faced the harshest conditions of all oil-producing countries. Although Russia would benefit from an end to shale oil, its economy was already facing difficult projections. Vladimir Putin has had to balance his military adventurism with economic difficulties, exacerbated by the oil glut. In this way, Russia may be aligned with Saudi Arabia in wanting to damage the US shale oil industry (and, at the same time US oil giants, like Exxon), but has more to lose than Saudi Arabia. However, Saudi Arabia and Russia have deftly managed budgets, low debt (a meager 2% and 18% respectively), and strong nationalism. While they would serve each other better as partners in OPEC, the US cannot allow it and Saudi Arabia is, as of now, most unlikely to make that gamble.

All countries involved have much to gain and, similarly, much to lose by way of oil. The US will be the last to consider any kind of radical action in the oil market as low prices serves the White House’s policy for the moment. Russia has little history of giving into foreign pressures and most likely will adapt to lower oil prices. Saudi Arabia, as the leader of OPEC, will most likely act first to balance its budget. While this will leave Russia to increase oil production if OPEC lowers theirs, it may be the only workable political solution. As of now, however, production remains high as all sides stare down each other and decide which direction is the best direction to take. For the first time in a long time, because of so many diverse geopolitical maneuvers happening at one time amongst the world’s energy producers and consumers, the future of ‘status quo’ may indeed be very uncertain.

Brian Hughes is currently a student in the International Security and Intelligence Studies program at Bellevue University in Omaha, NE, USA.

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Russia, Ukraine And The Disputed Crimean Peninsula

MD Staff

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In this exclusive video for In Homeland Security, American Military University’s Dr. Matthew Crosston, Doctoral Programs, School of Security and Global Studies, discusses the tumultuous relationship between Russia and Ukraine since the 2014 ‘Maidan Revolution’ and how each nation, the United States, and NATO all view the disputed peninsula of Crimea. There is a transcript of the video below.

Transcript of Dr. Crosston’s Analysis:

If we’re looking at the Russian Ukrainian conflict, sort of en mass, going back to its beginning foundation, for Russia at least it starts with the Maidan Revolution – or even the precursors to what created the Maidan Revolution. And, that’s something that we get a little bit of a debate or a discussion in the West about. The Russians feel that the West sort of made some sneaky promises behind the scenes to Ukraine – the people who would ultimately lead this revolution and cause the sitting president to flee to Russia and have a new president come in and take his place who was much more EU-friendly much more-NATO friendly much less Russian friendly. The Russians always saw some subterfuge in that action. They never saw it as a natural organic revolution. They always saw it as an example of Western interference, and they – therefore – felt justified to say well if you can interfere, we’re going to interfere because if you’re just playing out your interests on the ground in Ukraine why can’t we play out our interests on the ground in Ukraine?

Besides, we also think Ukraine is a better partner to us and should be a bigger compatriot of our interest because we have religious, cultural, historical ties. No matter how you try to play it in the West, Ukraine and Russia should not be at odds against each other, Ukraine and Russia should not be enemies. They are the more natural allies. And in the end since you’re making false promises we’re going to find out how much you really mean it when you tell Ukraine secretly whisper-whisper behind our backs [saying] don’t listen to Russia don’t do anything about Russia. Come to us instead. Ukraine really believed in that the people who led the Maidan Revolution believe that would happen. So then what we call the annexation of Crimea (but yet in Russia they call the secession of Crimea into the Russian Federation because the people in Crimea held a referendum saying we want to be part of Russia) – we don’t want to be part of Ukraine anymore. We portray that as being Russia forced that on Crimea. The Russians say the Crimeans voiced their political will, and we back them up – which is what you guys in the West didn’t do for Ukraine when we did it.

The Kerch Strait

What’s above the Kerch Strait – which never gets played in Western media – is this massive eight-lane superhighway that actually the Russians built and had actually in place as a as an agreement and was already begun to be built before the Maidan Revolution and is now complete. What it does is it connects as a land bridge – it connects from Rostov in Russia and over into Crimea. So that you don’t have to go through Ukraine at all to get into Crimea. That’s where those naval vessels were;  that’s where the Russians they were getting near the bridge – without any knowledge or any announcement of anything preordained.

So, the Russians said ‘what are you doing here?’ Ukrainians don’t answer. And, the Russians start playing with it, and they said ‘well we’ll see how tough you really are … you really going to use these naval ships? Are you really going to do an action here? That’s why the Russians call it a provocation. And, in the West – we say the Russians are just making up the word ‘provocation’ because these vessels weren’t doing anything. But, we are ignoring how the perspective of the Russians – near this massive land bridge (that literally now connects Russia to Crimea), how would they interpret the presence of military vessels unannounced with no declared plan of action – just this sort of mysterious presence? They did what most countries probably would do, but what they did goes against our interests, so therefore we have a problem with Russia’s actions.

No World War 3 Imminent

Russia has seen – really, quite frankly – since the 90s (with Clinton) this sort of slow very gradual encroachment where more and more members of what they used to consider their sphere of influence or their regional neighborhood (the Russian regional neighborhood) more and more people become part of NATO. But the one part they’ve always laid out is like the parts that have always sort of been Russian, and you can’t underestimate what Ukraine means to Russians in their memory as far as their historical cultural and even religious memory – that area Ukraine and Russia has always been tied together. So that might be the red line (no pun intended) for the Russians drawn in the sand – Ukraine will not go to NATO – will stand up against that. And, I think maybe the possibility was that NATO thought ‘well let’s test that a little bit because maybe they’re saying it of course we understand why you say we need machismo on that, you need some bravado on that, but let’s see if you really mean it.’ And, as it turns out, the Russians said ‘yeah, we do really mean it. Now do you really mean it? Are you really going to come to bat for Ukraine if we step up?’ They stepped up, we stepped back. That sounds bad but it’s not World War 3, and won’t be World War 3 because it means the two big sides – the two big players (Russia and the United States) – are declaring: Ukraine is enough for us to get into [inconsequential] fights over, [but] it’s not enough for us to get into a real war with each other over. And, that’s the part that’s going unsaid in the West that we should emphasize more.

Author’s note: This video first appeared at Homeland Security

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The Death of the ‘Lisbon to Vladivostok’ Project?

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Russian relations with Europe are part of a complicated story rooted in military, economic and often ideological realms. Both entities have for centuries tried to find a modus vivendi, but have so far failed. One compromise suggested for Europe and Russia was an economic space stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok – the space characterized by a unified economy, political understanding and even deep military cooperation.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin for years advocated the idea, making speeches about the case. To be clear, Putin was not the first to propound it, but was merely reflecting on similar ideological arguments of the past. A transcontinental union spanning the Atlantic to the Pacific is a geopolitical concept that pops back up from time to time and is linked to neo-Eurasianism, before which the geopolitical space was made up by the triangle of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Imperial Japan.

One space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, which one might also call “Greater Eurasia”, would make Russia pivot to the West. This was an attractive idea for the European and Russians. Indeed, even German Chancellor Angela Merkel once said that she hopes “Russia would increasingly develop ties with the European economic area, finally resulting in a common economic area from Lisbon to Vladivostok”.

How would such cooperation look? Perhaps it would imply at least a free trade agreement (FTA), whose core features might involve the cutting of tariffs and non-tariff barriers. Business interests in the EU as well as Russia are likely to be supportive of such a proposition. Putin stated that “in future, we could even consider a free trade zone or even more advanced forms of economic integration. The result would be a unified continental market with a capacity worth trillions of Euros”.

Surely when we talk about Russia in this context, we need to understand this space as including neighboring post-Soviet states. Russia launched its Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) project back in 2015.

One would think that for the EU, an FTA with the EAEU would be an advantageous proposition from an economic standpoint, since it would give preferential access to an important market. But one would expect the pre-conditions posed by the EU for the opening of negotiations to be many and quite stringent.

For Moscow, this positioning might be more economically advantageous, as the EEU could be a bridge for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to connect with the European market. On the map, all appears logical and attractive, but in reality, China’s BRI, although not against being cooperative with other blocks, still aims at pulling major Eurasian resources towards itself. Russia’s EEU, weaker in dimension than the BRI, will inevitably be drawn to Beijing with growing grievances on the Russian side.

Back to the unified Russia-Europe economic space, there remains the fundamental question as to whether or not Russia would consider an FTA with the EU to be in its interests. Is the ‘Lisbon to Vladivostok’ idea serious? In Russia, many would fear that an FTA with the EU would be too imbalanced, or asymmetric in favor of the EU. Indeed, most Russian exports to the EU, such as oil and gas, are already being traded without tariffs. Also, the challenge for any petro-economy to sustain a substantial and competitive industrial sector would be a tough task to pull off.

So far, we have given a pretty rosy picture of the two stood regarding the project just several years ago, in the period before the Ukraine crisis.

When discussing Russian geopolitical moves, one needs to remember how important Ukraine is and how the latter has been a driving factor in Russia’s calculus. Ukraine has always been the main point of any of Russia’s grand projects of the past and present. The modern EEU, an ambitious project that goes well beyond the simple removal of borders between the five ex-Soviet countries (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia), is weak economically and geographically without Ukraine. Many believe that even before the Ukraine crisis, Russia-Europe relations were strained and a crisis was inevitable, but it should not be forgotten that it is still Ukraine which made the differences insurmountable. It could even be argued that the Ukraine crisis put an end to any grand strategic view between Russia and Europe. The “Lisbon-Vladivostok” vision, it could be argued, is now dead.

Beyond the Ukrainian issue are also other important issues which are likely to stop any furtherance of the Greater Eurasia project. Europe and Russia are not just two competing economic blocs, but two blocs with opposing values and political systems. A compromise between the two has not been seen in the history of the past several centuries, except for short periods of time when Russian military power was needed in settling inter-European problems.

Moreover, put in the longer-term perspective, we see that the abandoning of the grand Lisbon-Vladivostok vision follows what is taking place across the entire Eurasian continent, where pragmatism and a reliance on real state interests and capabilities are back in fashion following the hopeful post-Cold War years.

Over the past several years, Russia has also leant towards the East. And while it is often put to question just how deep the Russian pivot to the East is, certain geopolitical tendencies lead us to support the idea as fact. Moscow portrays this policy as its own choosing, but the reality is that from three grand avenues (Eastern Europe, South Caucasus, and Central Asia) of projection of Russian geopolitical influence, it is only in Central Asia that Moscow does not meet important pushback from any Western power, while Chinese influence is only seen in economics. This simple vector of projection of Russian power is quite telling at a time when Moscow is more drawn to the East rather than the West, spelling a death note to once grand plans of an economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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Russia invites African leaders to Sochi Summit

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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Russia has finally announced that it would host African leaders and corporate business tycoons in a high-level October summit in Sochi, south coastal city, to roll out a comprehensive agenda and strategy aimed at raising the existing overall Russia’s economic profile in Africa, St Petersburg based Roscongress, the official organizer of the October summit, said on its website.

It is currently collaborating with the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Russian Export Center and the African Export-Import Bank in organizing the forthcoming business summit.

Roscongress is a non-profit foundation that has grown into a high-profile organization and gained recognition as an effective organizer of the most important business conventions and exhibitions, both in Russia and beyond.

Anton Kobyakov, an Advisor to the Russian President, said that the Russia-African summit primarily seeks to deepen understanding of the business climate, accelerate investment and partnership possibilities in Africa.

“The upcoming summit will be unique in the history of relations between Russia and African countries, and will plot the vector for the further development of bilateral and multilateral contacts for decades to come,” he said.

In his contribution, Professor Benedict Oramah, President and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank), explicitly noted that Russia had the necessary capabilities and, most importantly, the experience and professionalism of its people who could support in these efforts in consolidating the relations.

Russia, by holding various events regularly, would provide an additional impetus for the development of trade and investment opportunities for both countries.

Quite recently, Vyacheslav Volodin, the Chairman of the State Duma, told an instant meeting held with the Ambassadors of African countries in the Russian Federation, that Russia would take adequate steps to deliver on pledges and promises with Africa countries. “We propose to move from intentions to concrete steps,” he said.

Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry has expressed optimism and full-fledged support.

“It is evident that the significant potential of our economic cooperation is far from being exhausted and much remains to be done so that Russia and Africa know more about each other’s capacities and needs,” Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov acknowledged in the current Russia’s relations with Africa.

He explained further that arranging an event of such a scale with the participation of over fifty heads of state and government required most careful preparation, including in terms of its substantive content and equally important was African businesspeople who have been looking to work on the Russian market.

“The economic component of the summit has a special significance as it would be of practical interest for all the parties. As such, specific Russian participants in bilateral or multilateral cooperation should be identified, which are not only committed to long-term cooperation but are also ready for large-scale investments in the African markets with account of possible risks and high competition,” Minister Lavrov noted in an interview.

For decades, Russia has been looking for effective ways to promote multifaceted ties and find new strategies of cooperation in energy, oil and gas, trade and industry, agriculture and other economic areas. Undoubtedly, holding a Russia-African summit would help deepen economic cooperation on the full range of spheres in Africa.

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