Let us see how oil barrel prices have really fluctuated in recent weeks: in April, in fact, the European and Asian Brent benchmark, in parallel with the US West Texas Intermediate (WTI), decreased by about 1 U.S. dollar per barrel a day.
The WTI, however, is a mixture of different light and sweet American crude oil and is refined especially in the Midwest and on the Gulf Coast.
The benchmark known as Brent, instead, is oil extracted in the North Sea and it has greater and faster access to large markets. It is therefore used as a common benchmark for the broader oil market, while the WTI is now used above all as a reference for the American market.
It should be noted, however, that in the previous month of March, the two benchmarks had fallen by 26.5 U.S. dollars per barrel and 24 U.S. dollars per barrel respectively.
In short, the imbalance in the oil market fully affected the March futures prices in particular, while the April fluctuations were mainly due to the OPEC plus agreement reached on April 2, setting the price at 26.03 U.S. dollars per barrel.
The breakdown in negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Russia led to a Saudi super-production – at first of 10 million barrels a day and then immediately of 12 million barrels a day – with a subsequent choice by OPEC to agree on a “fall” in the oil barrel price at 60 U.S. dollars, given the Covid-19 pandemic crisis.
A mistake, but probably a too classically macroeconomic forecast that does not consider strategic and internal competition assessments within OPEC, which are often essential to set prices.
Later the oil barrel price increased immediately to 34.44 U.S. dollars per barrel on April 9, then to 16.04 U.S. dollars per barrel on April 22 and finally closed at 25.04 U.S. dollars per barrel.
In mid-April the WTI opened at 20.48 U.S. dollars per barrel, then reached 28.26 U.S. dollars and finally closed at 19.29 U.S. dollars, after having also reached the negative and paradoxical price of -37.63 U.S. dollars per barrel on April 20, 2020.
Moreover, on April 14, the International Monetary Fund published a forecast from which it could be inferred that the world GDP would decrease by 3% in the remaining period of 2020, while on April 15 the International Energy Agency published its own analysis which estimated a reduction ofthe oil demand by 9,300,000 barrels per day by the end of 2020.
Hence the WTI futures for May delivery, immediately collapsed to -37.63 U.S. dollars per barrel. Here, however, the real problem is storage.
Short-term contracts do not envisage it at all.
In fact, as many industry analysts maintain, this caused the fall in prices.
It is no coincidence, in fact, that U.S. commercial oil stocks have risen significantly, from 469,193,000 barrels on March 27 to 527,631,000 barrels on May 24. Hence, in all likelihood, the U.S. ETF Oil Fund – which plunged by 15% in the April 27 session alone, after the announcement of major changes in the composition of its portfolio – has fallen due to unexpected overstocking.
In other words, the U.S. Fund has stated it plans to remove all WTI contracts expiring in June from its portfolio and replace them with longer-term contracts, with obvious immediate losses.
Therefore,the US Oil Fund will be broken down as follows: 30% of the portfolio will be WTI contracts expiring in July; 15% of the portfolio will be WTI contracts expiring in August; then contracts expiring in the following month up to the remaining 10% expiring in June 2021.
The losses of the U.S. Fund are now -87% since the beginning of this year.
The U.S. Fund has an estimated value of 3 billion U.S. dollars. A financial phenomenon that has made it similar to other funds specializing in oil futures.
It is clear that this behaviour has contributed to the bearish trend of recent months and this has certainly not favoured Donald J. Trump’s election campaign.
Furthermore, the WTI decline can also be explained by the structural logistical shortcomings that characterize the oil transport system within the United States.
Nevertheless, based on the ideas of the current Algerian Chairman-in-office, OPEC predicts that the oil barrel price will be equal to 40 U.S. dollars at the beginning of the third quarter of 2020 and that, in any case, the oil market will return to balance before the end of this year. A very unlikely hope.
The new OPEC plus plus agreement, however, entered into force on May 1, 2020.
The first phase of the agreement signed on April 12, 2020envisaged that all OPEC members plus the others would reduce production by 9,700,000 barrels a day until June 30, 2020.
At the beginning of May, the Russian Federation and Saudi Arabia brought their production to 8,750,000 barrels a day (with a decrease of 2 million barrels per day), with the further intention of bringing their output to the limit of 8,500,000 barrels a day.
The first phase of the bilateral agreement signed on April 12 also envisaged that the producers nor belonging directly to OPEC would “voluntarily” cut production by at least 5,000,000 barrels a day over the same period of time.
It should be recalled that these important non-OPEC producers include Norway, Canada, Brazil and, obviously, the United States.
Nevertheless, the non-OPEC total cuts have reached – with some difficulty – just 4,100,000 barrels a day.
Indeed, according to Standard & Poor’s calculations, the United States decreased production by as many as 11,600,000 barrels a day and only for the week which ended on May 8.
Hence a decrease of 1.5 million barrels a day, compared to the level of 13,100,000 barrels a day reached on March 13, 2020.
Therefore, for the first time since February 2019 the U.S. production has fallen below 12,000,000 barrels a day.
Moreover, on April 30, 2020, the U.S. strategic oil reserves reached 636 million oil barrels, compared to a total maximum capacity of 714 million barrels.
According to the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, however, global oil demand will decrease by as many as 11,400,000 barrels a day throughout 2020, before slightly increasing by 10,600,000 barrels a day in 2021.
Despite all possible statistical tricks, however, the unemployment rate has currently reached 14.7% in the United States and it is rising quickly.
This leads to a fall of about 30% in U.S. oil consumption, but the Russian Federation records a 4-6% GDP drop at least until the end of 2020.
Moreover, on April 24, the Russian Central Bank cut rates by 50 basis points to 5.5%, while the Russian inflation rate is expected to rise by 4.8% until the end of this year.
According to data of April 30 last, China shows an increase in the composite index (manufacturing + services) from 53 to 53.4, while the index of services alone has grown from 52.3 to 53.2.
However, the index of Chinese purchases in the manufacturing sector alone has decreased by two points, while the CAXIN index – which measures Chinese private SMEs – points to a small recession.
Chinese oil imports in April, in fact – driven only by public enterprises – increased by 4.5% year over year.
Chinese imports from Saudi Arabia, however, decreased by 90,000 barrels a day while, despite U.S. sanctions, Chinese purchases of Iranian oil rose by 11.3% as against the previous year.
Therefore, we are faced with a new distribution of geopolitical and oil control areas.
The alternative for China is between Iran, the core of the new Silk Road, and Venezuela, although both Russia and China have agreed to give Russia a primary role in Venezuela.
Hence the global geopolitical games are postponed to the return of a robust oil demand after the Covid-19 crisis, which will end only with a vaccine or a universally accepted therapy. On a geopolitical level, however, it will probably concern a new agreement between China, the United States and the Russian Federation.
An agreement that this time could see a real role of mediator for Italy, involving both ENI and governmental and private technical structures.
There are many issues to be considered in the relations between the United States, China and Russia: Russia’s alleged penetration into the North American electoral and political machinery and apparata; the commercial negotiations between the United States and China which, coincidentally, exacerbated during the oil price crisis; finally, the infra-US conflict regarding the reduction of local oil production.
It has to be said that if there is a recovery of the oil market, demand could reach 90-95 million barrels a day, but the country recording the greatest loss of production will certainly be the United States, which has the highest cost of oil barrel production.
Meanwhile, in its anti-coronavirus aid programme of April 30 last, the Federal Reserve envisaged direct support to U.S. oil and gas companies.
As many analysts maintain, however, several companies of the shale sector, which live only on high prices, would go bankrupt by the end of 2020.
In terms of global assessments, however, world oil demand is estimated to fall by 19,000,000 barrels a day during this quarter of 2020 and by 8,600,000 barrels a day throughout 2021.
Global oil supply is expected to decrease by 12,000,000 barrels a day since May to 88,000,000 next year.
OECD stocks have increased by 68,200,000 barrels a day to a total of 2,961,000,000, well over 46,000,000 barrels a day above the average of the last five years – a quantity worth 90 days of average demand.
Non-conventional crude oil production in the U.S., however, declined by 183,000 barrels a day with a peak until March 13, before falling by approximately 12,000,000 barrels a day on May 8.
There are currently 374 drills operating in the United States, of which 292 oil and 80 gas ones, plus 2 mixed ones.
They are 228 fewer than those recorded on April 9, 2020, the minimum level since 1940.
In short, the Covid-19 pandemic is redesigning all geopolitical scenarios, through oil, above all, but not only through it. Here not only energy counts, but rather the whole economic system which, however, is still currently oil-dependent.
The G20 has already put forward international cooperation proposals to cancel the debt of some of the poorest countries and for a coordinated response against the pandemic by the most technologically advanced countries.
Hence any radical transformation of energy systems entails a paradigm shift at geopolitical level.
According to the International Monetary Fund, no oil-producing country can make money with an oil barrel price at 40 U.S. dollars. Only Qatar barely can, but every country in the Middle East needs prices of at least 60 U.S. dollars per barrel.
However, there is more than the tax or productive breakeven point: the producing countries’ economic diversification is essential.
From this viewpoint, only Mexico, the Russian Federation and the United Arab Emirates could survive, while some others with less differentiated economies can still ask for loans or temporarily stop public spending.
Nevertheless, this depends not only on macroeconomic evaluations, but above all on political and structural issues: the presence of foreign manpower that can be easily sent away (Saudi Arabia); the possibility of using other forms of energy (Morocco) or the negative impact of some old Welfare State on the oil price (Algeria).
Other countries are, instead, particularly vulnerable: Iraq, which is currently also one of Italy’s main suppliers; Oman, Algeria, Nigeria, Ecuador, Angola, Surinam, not to mention Iran and Venezuela, where the oil issue is part of a severe international political crisis.All these countries can shortly fail or fall into an indefinite crisis, with unpaid salaries in the public sector and primary services largely reduced, as well as military crises and great political instability.
In some cases, this may lead to the expansion of “terrorism”, more exactly of the “sword jihad”, which can drive a wedge within the hotbeds of crisis and rule the States or the areas left by the old legitimate governments. It may also lead to the uncontrolled expansion of the great international crime, which can turn the failed States into bases to attack the still relatively healthy economies of some Western countries, and to connect the areas of illegality one another and hence turn the crime territories into a new great geopolitical player.
A further possibility – not to be ruled out at all – concerns the mounting of regional tensions, which could become a not entirely irrational option, at least for some producing countries.
Just think of the oil barrel price crisis triggering a final showdown between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
There will also be Asian or African countries that will benefit from the vertical fall in prices.
It should be recalled, however, that on April 20 last, the West Texas Crude contract expiring in May fell to -40.32 U.S. dollars.
The countries which will benefit – to a certain extent – from the fall in prices include Argentina -which is currently already prey to yet another default, but which will pay much less for energy imports- as well as the Philippines, India, Turkey and South Africa.
These countries will no longer be burdened by the cost of oil imports, but will also attract less investment from producing countries, whose availability of capital will collapse quickly.
Previously oil prices had fallen due to the expansion of the shale market in the United States, to lower global growth and to the slow, but stable shift to renewable energy in most consumer countries.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, which accelerated all these factors and, in fact, blocked the economy and saturated oil inventories and warehouses.
The world economy will not “recover” soon or, more exactly, will no longer be as it was before the pandemic.
Global Value Chains will become much shorter and many mature, but essential productions will go back to the countries which, in the times of rampant globalization, moved everything – except for high technology and finance – to countries with low labour costs and low taxes.
The producing countries’ adaptation to the new context will certainly be slower than needed.
The large solar energy basin planned by Mohammed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 was stopped indefinitely last November, while the privatization of Saudi Aramco has now proved to be a failure.
Once the profitability of the Saudi oil has ended – and hence the special relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, as well as the U.S. penetration in the Middle East -currently a phase of great instability in the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is beginning, in which Iran could play other cards besides the purely military ones.
However, the Iranian oil extraction cost is higher than the Saudi one.
The Russian Federation “falls” at an oil barrel price of 40 U.S. dollars and, if it cannot control its internal areas and the border with China and the Caucasus, it is very easy to imagine what could happen.
Even the United States is not in a better situation.
Shale oil is the biggest source of employment in Michigan, Arkansas and Ohio. These are essential States for the re-election of Donald J. Trump and surely the President will do everything to support the workers-voters and these States.
The end of the oil economy is near – or probably it has already arrived – and no one can imagine what will happen to energy markets and to our economies in the near future.
Energy Research Platform Takes Central Stage under Russia’s BRICS Chairmanship
After the Ufa declaration in 2015, BRICS, an association of five major emerging economies that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, has made energy cooperation one of its priorities besides attaining an admirable significant influence on regional affairs and very active on the global stage.
That 7th summit held in July in the Russian provincial city of Ufa in Bashkortostan, under Russia’s initiative the BRICS adopted the key guideline for expanding among many other spheres, development of energy cooperation, bridging the scientific and technological gap, as well as finding solutions to the challenges in the energy sector among the members.
The Ufa Declaration (point 69) states “Recognizing the importance of monitoring global trends in the energy sector, including making forecasts regarding energy consumption, providing recommendations for the development of energy markets in order to ensure energy security and economic development, we call on our relevant agencies to consider the possibilities of energy cooperation within BRICS.”
“Taking into consideration the role of the energy sector in ensuring the sustainable economic development of the BRICS countries, we welcome balancing the interests of consumers, producers and transit countries of energy resources, creating the conditions for sustainable and predictable development of the energy markets,” it further stated.
Worth to remind here that it was Russia’s proposal to hold the first meeting of the BRICS Ministers of Energy during the fourth quarter of 2015. While reaffirming the importance and necessity of advancing international cooperation in the field of energy saving, energy efficiency and developing energy efficient technologies, the BRICS look forward to developing intra-BRICS cooperation in this area, as well as the establishment of the relevant platform.
In 2020, Russia holds the rotating chair of BRICS. BRICS has neither a secretariat nor a charter. The country that chairs BRICS organizes the group’s summit and coordinates its current activities. Russia has been holding series of conferences focusing on different directions. In mid-October, the BRICS Energy Ministers held their meeting and approved a roadmap for cooperation in energy sphere that runs until 2025. Due to coronavirus pandemic, it was video conference chaired by Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak.
The influence of BRICS nations on the international arena is increasing due to the increasing economic power of the participating states, and it is imperative for them to coordinate their positions in energy cooperation, Minister Novak said during the meeting.
“Today, the BRICS nations represent nearly one fourth of global GDP and over a third of global consumption and production of energy. In this regard, it is very important to coordinate the positions of our nations where we have common interests and speak from a unified position in global platforms which concern themselves with matters of international energy cooperation,” he said.
“We have already begun to implement this idea in practice. Our nations have launched informal consultations on the sidelines of the G20 and on the sidelines of the World Energy Council. Beginning our work this year, we have collectively determined three key vectors of the energy dialogue. These are the support for the development of the national energy systems of BRICS nations, technological cooperation and facilitation of improved terms for investment in energy, contributing to the stability of energy markets and increasing the role of BRICS in the global energy dialogue,” Novak emphasized.
The roadmap adopted at the end of the meeting is the first comprehensive document that sets out agreed plans for the development of the energy dialogue between the five countries. The meeting also issued a communique confirming the intention to strengthen their strategic partnership in the energy sector and the area of energy security, and noting the important role of all types of energy, including fossil fuels and nuclear power.
The ministers affirmed that energy transition should correspond to national conditions and each country should determine the optimal policy without being compelled to adopt models that do not fit BRICS countries, according to the Russian ministry statement.
On October 15, Moscow hosted the first Annual Meeting of the BRICS Energy Research Platform, where analytical reports by the BRICS countries presented. That was followed by the largest youth energy event in BRICS. This year, delegations from all five countries comprised of representatives of Line Agencies responsible for the implementation of energy and youth policies as well as over 150 young scientists and experts from 40 leading universities and industrial organizations took part in the summit.
According to surveys conducted by the VTsIOM, Russian public opinion research centre, the number of families that have been taught to save energy has doubled over the past five years. That the BRICS countries are taking part in the #TogetherBrighter International Energy Saving Festival, as part of the BRICS Energy Week (October 16 – 20) was a landmark event of Russia’s BRICS Chairmanship.
Notably, the Energy Research Platform designed to encourage the research community’s involvement in the practical activities on drawing up energy resource plans. Two major events took place as part of the Energy Research Platform. The results submitted for consideration by the heads of state for effective industrial interaction and practical cooperation in developing and implementing new joint energy.
Based on national statistics and forecasts, leading BRICS experts have prepared the “BRICS Energy Report” – a review of the energy sectors in the five countries, and the “BRICS Energy Technology Report” – focuses on the priorities of technological development of the fuel and energy sectors in BRICS. The reports came from leading experts, representatives of major research institutes and energy companies from the BRICS countries as well as international energy organizations, such as OPEC, GECF, the World Energy Forum, the Clean Energy Ministerial and the World Energy Council.
In September, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held an online meeting of the BRICS Foreign Ministers Council in Moscow. That was second of such meetings this year under Russia’s chairmanship. The first one was dedicated exclusively to mobilizing efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus infection.
Within an updated Strategy for BRICS Economic Partnership to 2025, Russia has drawn proposals on developing a new mechanism for the five member’s interaction in securing sustainable economic development in the post-pandemic age.
The theme of the Meeting of the Leaders of BRICS countries is “BRICS Partnership for Global Stability, Shared Security and Innovative Growth” which is planned for November 17 via videoconference, to be coordinated and moderated in Moscow. This year the five countries have continued close strategic partnership on all the three major pillars: peace and security, economy and finance, cultural and people-to-people exchanges.
“Despite the current global situation due to the spread of the coronavirus infection, the activities under the Russian BRICS Chairmanship in 2020 are carried out in a consistent manner. Since January 2020, more than 60 events have been organized, including via videoconferencing. The BRICS Summit will provide impetus for further strengthening cooperation together with our partners and ensure well-being of BRICS countries,” – noted Anton Kobyakov, Adviser to the President of the Russian Federation, Executive Secretary of the Organizing Committee to Prepare and Support Russia’s SCO Presidency in 2019 – 2020 and BRICS Chairmanship in 2020.
Since 2009, the BRICS nations have met annually at formal summits, with Brazil having hosted the most recent 11th BRICS Summit in November 2019. Russia is pushing forward significant issues of five-sided cooperation in the bloc’s three areas of strategic partnership: policy and security, economy and finance, and cultural and educational cooperation. The five BRICS countries together represent over 3.1 billion people, or about 41 percent of the world population.
Don’t Expect Sanctions to Stop Nord Stream II
Republican Senator Ted Cruz has become the principal Sisyphus-like character to take over the task of rolling the boulder of sanctions against Nord Stream II. The last four years have seen tumultuous U.S. sanctioning efforts against the project and have epitomized an outdated, stale, and dangerous policy against the Russian Federation that should be re-prioritized and established alongside American principles and level-headed recommendations. This current policy of the passé will not change overnight, however, a sober, self-reflective examination of the failed sanctioning efforts on the part of U.S. policymakers could lead to one less thorn in the side of the Russo-American relationship. As the project nears completion, European and American critics of it have attempted to wield a Russian domestic issue, the alleged poisoning of opposition politician Alexey Navalny, as a pressure tool to stop it. With Denmark recently granting permission to continue laying the pipeline using pipe-laying vessels with anchors along the southeast coast of Bornholm, this disheartened push may now prove too weak.
It’s Time to Let Go
When former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden first voiced his disapproval of the Nord Stream II pipeline and called it a “bad deal” for Europe in 2016, it was to be expected that the weight of his utterance would have the power to transform into a discernible political reality sooner rather than later in the halls of U.S. Congress. Especially in light of America’s perspective LNG aspirations hoping to meet Europe’s growing import needs. This would not come in the form of recurring strong-worded messages or initiating a new wave of tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats but by way of economic sanctions. After all, this has long been the U.S. go-to.” When it comes to Russian pipelines, U.S. efforts to derail them since the 1960s, the time of the construction of the Druzhba (Friendship) pipeline, have largely seen a string of failure. Sanctions have also more generally become, as Hunter Cawood aptly frames it, “a mythology that has persisted and lived on in spite of failure after failure”. Hopes of finding an exception to this convention did not begin with a flying start.
It’s time to let go…because of an incoherent strategy, appearing in a historical context of failure, signals peril.
Round One: Shaky First Steps
This new task of sanctioning the NS2 project appeared not as a unilateral and relatively clear-cut scenario as had been the case of sanctions vis-à-vis, for example, Iran, where its effects could do minimal damage to the robust transatlantic relationship with the EU. Overarchingly, the principal argument and qualms from the side of the U.S. was the claim of its detrimental impact on the EU’s energy security and, as a shared concern with various EU countries spearheaded by Poland, the “threat to EU unity”. As we shall discover, U.S. justifications for sanctioning NS2 would zig-zag around different lines of reasoning but would frequently come back to this notion of Russia’s malign influence. NS2, more interestingly, became a scenario where entanglements of linking the target of sanctions with a particular cause could become awkward in light of any signs of ambiguity or lack of clarity. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, from her part, was clear in this regard: this was an economic project, first and foremost, that required no extra mandate from the EU. To disagree on this principle, as the U.S. would do from the onset by likening it to that of a “weapon”, would become the root of the disagreement.
In August 2017, this is precisely what occurred when the subsequent Trump administration dealt the first real blow by targeting foreign investments into Russian export pipelines and against energy companies which owned 33% shares or more. This arose in light of the multi-faceted bill called the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Receiving praise in Congress, President Trump did not share the same optimism about the bill and called it “seriously flawed”, namely due to its encroachment on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate. In such a move, the issue was that major European companies involved, including Austria’s OMV, were left in limbo about realistically being able to finance the project. It would spark debate in Europe and evoked serious questions about the legal implications of the sanctions bill itself and the role of the U.S. in European affairs; Germany and Austria jointly called it an “unacceptable intervention” in the EU’s energy sector. This initial European reaction would ultimately reach the Department of State that went on to clarify and water down their effects the following October — the project effectively gained immunity from the capital restrictions. It appeared that NS2 could steamroll ahead for now, however, the first fissures in the relationship with Europe had materialized over it.
It’s time to let go…because the sanctions damage the transatlantic relationship with the EU.
This begs the question: what did sanctions achieve in round one? Deriving from a historical context where the efficacy of sanctions rests on a measly success rate of around 4%, a coherent approach could, once again, not be identified. Apart from the initial uncertainty, the effects of the first round of watered-down sanctions did not require any kind of major adjustments from the side of the partners involved and Germany could effectively grant permission for the project’s construction in its territorial waters in January the following year. There were, nevertheless, a few caveats. The sanctions did serve as an attempt to scare off Russia’s European partners and Gazprom did issue a warning to its investors that the sanctions had the possibility of delaying the project. They would also hamper efforts to raise money with an added risk premium demanded by stakeholders.
The initial steps, moreover, appeared to have a principal strategic intention in mind from the part of the U.S. — a type of “CNN Effect”: signaling for greater awareness and visibility of the alleged detrimental impact of NS2, stimulating the desire of American and European policymakers to respond to this perceived threat and opening up another front of pressure against Russia. While, concurrently, evaluating options for the future that would still require intensive lobbying, identifying and acting upon the right legal mechanisms, and providing a strong argument to wary Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) nations like Finland, Sweden, and Denmark to put an end to the pipeline. What the U.S. seemed unready for was Gazprom’s hefty lobbying activities on U.S. soil, spending $1 million to shield the pipeline from the sanctions and ensuring that American legislators were “correctly informed about the project”/ At this stage the sanctions had developed into a nuisance at most, however, this initial round sounded the alarm for European and Russian stakeholders that future pressure was to be expected.
It’s time to let go…because they are treated as a nuisance rather than effective policy.
Round Two: Not So Easy, EEZ
In early 2018, it was Poland that assumed re-energized attempts of pushing for additional U.S. sanctions against the project and called U.S. efforts surrounding a new bill, not covering NS2, as “ambiguous and unsatisfactory” for the Polish side. Once again, clarity and concreteness from the U.S. could not be identified in the response. On April 12, despite this renewed talk of sanctions, Finland granted a full set of permits for its construction in its EEZ, the second country to do so after Germany. Sweden followed suit on June 7. However, if Poland wanted another chance for the project’s complete shutdown, they would just have to wait another few months when they were presented with a golden opportunity right at the height of Russiagate following the Trump-Putin Helsinki Summit on July 16. This time Republican Senators John Barrasso and Cory Gardner introduced a bill, which through Section 232 of CAATSA, would be used to “identify and sanction U.S. and foreign entities supporting or expanding Gazprom’s near-monopolist role in providing energy to U.S. allies.” For President Trump, it was an opportunity to slam his fist down on allegations of “bowing down to Putin” at the Summit. The geopolitical theatre now served another domestic purpose. All things considered; this new round was deemed the one — it was the “kill-switch” that its advocates hoped would terminate the project for good. John Barrasso, the chief architect of the bill, had simply had enough of, what he called, “Europe’s addiction to Russian gas”.
It was not to be. Regardless of the buzz surrounding this bill in U.S. Congress, Germany and the companies involved in the project expressed the same position as they had done previously by emphasizing its lucrative economic gains for the European continent. However, ambiguous positions had now started to appear within the U.S. government itself with Trump admitting that Germany had the right to participate in the project just days after the Helsinki Summit, even though he had labeled Germany a “captive” of Russia before the NATO Summit just weeks before. Nevertheless, Nord Stream II gained enough confidence to begin construction in German waters despite not yet having found the last piece of the legal puzzle — Denmark. The year would finish with the intrigue of the Nordic country still not giving the go-ahead after proposed changes to the country’s laws even threatening to block the project back in April. Further U.S. threats took the year to a close.
With Barrasso’s bill and the unanimous efforts by U.S. policymakers, the sanctions now had further backing domestically, although questions about their potency were now a concern upon the realization of the steadfastness of the EEZ countries. Three out of four of them were, until that point, not swayed by U.S. pressure. To put an end to the project would not solely be in the hands of the U.S.
It’s time to let go…because key variables are beyond U.S. control.
Round Three: Loopholes, The Deciding Factor?
If the U.S. had hoped that 2019 would be the year for the project’s shutdown, such wishful thinking would see a reality check early on. In February, Nord Stream II scored a partial victory that was handed to it by the EU itself in the form of a new deal governing import gas pipelines. The catch was not in the deal itself, which was aimed at ensuring that the principles of EU energy legislation apply to all gas pipelines to and from third countries, but in the loopholes that were created because of it. The intrigue of Denmark had become relevant again and its threats to block the project would now seemingly not matter as the Danish regulatory authority would be denied a decisive say. It would now practically be in the hands of German regulators. However, while it initially seemed favorable to NS2, the pipeline project company would launch a notice of the dispute to the EU as it claimed it was in breach of the Energy Charter Treaty and discriminated against the project, which resulted in successive failed agreements over the next few months. NS2 and the partners involved were determined to put up a fight wherever it arrived.
In May, the leadership of Nord Stream II signaled that it was so confident in the project’s completion that it did not even need a “Plan B” against the sanctions. It was also this month that saw further justification efforts from the side of the U.S. for ramping up their implementation, and it would involve Russia’s neighbor to the West – Ukraine. Due to the diversion of gas around the country made possible by the project, major U.S. statements about its plans for further sanctions tend to surround official visits to the country. The U.S. Energy Secretary at the time, Rick Perry, during the inauguration of President Vladimir Zelensky, was firm in his assessment that the pipeline will be used to “split eastern European nations away from those of central and western Europe.”
The split was very real but not what Rick Perry had in mind. The Visegrád Group, initially solid in opposing the project and creating a united front against it in the European Commission, had seen a divergence of opinion from 2016 when the project was in its early stages and before the wave of successive Russian lobbying efforts. Czechia, Hungary, and Slovakia have diverted or hushed up their positions about the project for various reasons and it had now become, as some describe, an “imaginary unity” against it. Out of these four countries, only Poland has maintained a persistent position.
It’s time to let go…because old partners have moved on, losing interest in rallying against it.
In October and November, NS2 scored two major victories. One, by claiming victory in Denmark when the country finally approved the construction of the pipeline in the waters that are part of its economic zone. Two, Germany’s parliament effectively allowing the project to “skirt European rules that forbid one entity from the being both the producer and the supplier of natural gas.” The nervous U.S. response came in the form of a U.S. Energy Department official stating that “The United States will examine all tools at its disposal regarding the project.” One of these tools would arrive in December.
On the 21st, Donald Trump signed a new package of sanctions, part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2020, that were labeled by the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, as being “pro-European.” The problem was that Europe, now as clear as ever, had started to see it in a very different light with the German finance minister, Olaf Scholz, reiterating Germany’s position by calling it a “serious interference in German and European affairs.” Most alarmingly, moreover, was not the European reaction to this round but the Trump administration had now shown a major sign that was the culmination of this failed years-long effort to see its demise. Two anonymous Senior U.S. Administration officials admitted, in a rare concession, that this move was too late to have any effect.
Despite these statements, this new round did complicate the situation for the project with the main contractor of the pipeline, Swiss group Allseas, suspending its operations in light of their announcement. The language of the NDAA targeted “vessels that engaged in pipe-laying at depths of 100 feet or more below sea level for the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project.” As such, the project would have to find alternative contractors and vessels for the remainder of it. To date, it can be regarded as the most convincing move in this chronicle of sanctioning efforts. A nuisance, financially and temporally, but far from project-terminating. Despite this setback, the next year would require something extraordinary in a last attempt to derail the project completely. Could the U.S. find another one of these tools? It was the eleventh hour and the project was 90% complete.
It’s time to let go…because, after four years, the U.S. has come to the realization: it’s too late.
Round Four: The Present
In light of the situation with Allseas and the suspension of the work of contractors, the year began with Russia’s announcement that the country would seek to complete the pipeline without the assistance of these foreign companies. It would simply need a pipe-laying vessel equipped with a dynamic positioning system, additional organizational work, and a permit from Denmark on the use of pipe-laying vessels with an anchor, which would seek to expand on their ability to complete it on their own. The vessel, the Akademik Cherskiy, would be found, but it was months away on the other side of the world docked at Russia’s Pacific port of Nakhodka. It was acquired in 2016 as part of a contingency plan should European companies drop out of the project. The issue, however, was that it had no relevant experience conducting such large-scale work and would need months to complete it, delaying the expected completion time to the end of 2020 or even the first quarter of 2021.
In February, Donald Trump’s top energy official, Dan Brouillette, dismissed any talk of delay and put forth the most confident U.S. stance on the project yet: the project will not be completed. Citing Russia’s “absence of technology,” Brouillette was adamant that the current phase was too difficult for Russia to get out of. Especially as a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators, spearheaded by Ted Cruz, was preparing the next round of sanctions that made one question what even there was left to target. It would become known in June that the bill would expand on the scope of the sanctions enacted in December and extend beyond vessel-owners; it would target insurance, tethering-facilities, equipment, and other firms having any involvement in the project. It has been hailed as a “super-sanctions” bill. Another case of being the one. Russia’s immediate response was in direct contrast to Brouillette: nothing will stop it from being built. As the chronology reaches the present, three major events have occurred in July and August.
The first being Denmark’s green light allowing for less technologically advanced ships to continue laying the pipeline off the coast of Bornholm, which would potentially negate the impact of the sanctions. The need for such an allowance relates to the toxic warfare substances left at the bottom of the Baltic Sea after WWII and thus, because of Denmark’s obligations to the Law on the Continental Shelf and under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a permit was needed for pipe-laying vessels with an anchor as these carry a greater element of risk. Russia has one such vessel — the Fortuna. This move expands Gazprom’s freedom of choice in vessels for finalizing the construction as these are not affected by the sanctions.
The second, the U.S. House of Representatives passing the NDAA amendment of sanctions, which would still need to be approved by the Senate and the President before becoming law. As the opposing sides claim victory with these events, the war of words has ramped up with the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, threatening the companies involved and telling them to “Get out, or risk the consequences.” On the other side, the harshest response has come from the German Eastern Business Association (OAOEV) that has, for the first time, started planning for retaliatory measures and the German Defense Minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, calling the latest move as running afoul of international law. In August, a letter was additionally sent by three U.S. senators to the operator of Mukran port, threatening “crushing legal and economic sanctions” if it continues its support for the project, which was harshly responded to by German policymakers. This has, undoubtedly, galvanized a scene of tension as both parties look towards an uncertain future of the transatlantic partnership.
The third, a domestic issue concerning Russian opposition blogger and activist, Alexey Navalny — German allegations of his poisoning with a Novichok-class nerve agent during his journey from Tomsk to Moscow. It would’ve seemed far-fetched to assume that an internal matter of the Russian Federation would uproot calls to cancel an unrelated project from the side of European and American policymakers, but the year is 2020 and anything can be used as leverage. Merkel was immediately bombarded with pressure to scrap it, but her cabinet has been adamant in their assessment that its completion should not depend on the case of Navalny.
It’s time to let go…because it is the right opportunity to save face concerning international law.
Forecast: Observations and Russian Counteractions
160 kilometers remain. A Danish green light. A new round awaiting approval by the Senate and President. Backlash from Europe. An American election. An alleged poisoning. These are the current circumstances of a project that has seen a cliff-hanger of a journey that is ready for its grand finale. As we approach it, several observations can be made about what to expect considering this complex reality and what Russia’s availabilities are for effective counteraction.
Nord Stream II Will be Completed Despite a Delay
It has become clear that, due to the amount of time and resources invested in the project and being this close to the finish line, Russia is going to seek to complete it regardless if the new round of sanctions pulls through, be it alone or with the assistance of its European partners. The Danish green light has facilitated this move significantly, however, it is up to the latter to decide on whether to prioritize these deemed lucrative economic gains through making this process even smoother by standing firm and actively counteracting the ongoing sanctioning efforts. Bolstered EU efforts would be an advantage, pragmatically and symbolically.
As Germany grows increasingly displeased with the sanctions and business entities already considering the pursuit of retaliatory measures, it is likely that it will do so. Nevertheless, a delay is expected due to the technological lag of the Akademik Cherskiy and because of the sanctions in December of last year, as has been admitted by the Russian President. This is without factoring in the consequences of the new round that could create a further temporary cessation of activities. The added issue of using the case of Navalny as leverage and as a pressure tool with the intention to scrap it should also be expected from the side of both European and U.S. policymakers. Germany has given mixed signals in this regard, suggesting that it should not be used as a factor in the completion of the pipeline, but has recently pressured Moscow to cooperate in the investigation for the country not to “force it to rethink the project.” Regardless, further debate and pressure from this angle can be forecasted.
For Russia, such an effort to complete it continues to be necessary, not only due to the prospective economic gains but as yet another way to reiterate Russia’s rejection of unilateralism in international politics. Should Russia succeed, it would further its reputation of maintaining resilience in the face of the long-standing reality of U.S. sanctions and would allow the country to continue the tradition of being a reliable supplier of natural gas to Europe. Anthony Scaramucci, the former White House Director of Communications, described such resilience already in 2017: “I think the sanctions had in some ways an opposite effect because of Russian culture. I think the Russians would eat snow if they had to survive.” Furthermore, it would exemplify the failure of current U.S. policy vis-à-vis Russia that would bring it one step closer to realizing that a novel approach is needed.
It’s time to let go…because Russian resilience will allow for the project’s completion, no matter the cost.
Further Damage to the Transatlantic Relationship
Since the initial fissures first perceived in 2017, the deterioration of relations between the U.S. and the EU has been apparent in connection with the project. If the new round passes both the Senate and President, it is to be expected that Europe will respond with more than just words of disappointment. The effects of this years-long tiptoeing around Europe’s reaction to the sanctions are likely to surmount further this year; Germany is now weighing in on countersanctions and so is its wider business community. If these are applied, the ball would be in the American court to respond as it sees appropriate, which will likely become yet another source of contention.
If the EU continues to be ignored in its requests to discuss the issue as allies and U.S. unilateralism continues, the latter may damage its perceived role on the European continent. As the EU expresses its intention to pursue a path of sovereignty and freedom of choice in international trade, by impeding and dictating this want, it treats the former as under-valued and incapable of discerning what is in their best interest. It does not show signs of a healthy alliance or relationship. Should Europe succumb to this pressure, as a matter of principle concerning its multilateral agreements with the U.S., it will set a precedent of continued interference and would demonstrate a complete lack of sovereignty.
For Russia, this entails another scenario of strongly condemning this new round of sanctions as it has done throughout by shattering the link of being a political, rather than an economic, project. Europe, for the most part, is aware of this distinction, however, the focus should be on American policymakers, conveying this message through all possible channels.
U.S. Election Unlikely to Have an Impact on Project Completion
November 3 is fast approaching, and the American domestic situation remains tense and unpredictable. The two front-runners, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, would be welcomed in attempts to settle the issue of sanctions against the project. However, judging by their previous actions, the former evidently having more to judge from, it is unlikely that Election Day will radically transform the overarching U.S. position vis-à-vis the project.
Joe Biden’s critical remarks from the onset as Vice President, right before Trump’s election, demonstrate that the Democratic Party would’ve likely pursued, at least, a similar path. This is more notably evidenced by the mostly bipartisan support of the bills introduced in this years-long process, which is a rare occurrence in the present polarized climate. What is different this time is that Joe Biden is running for President and has been escalating a hostile campaign against Russia in the process. Whether this will convert into a more unbending and obstinate stance on the issue of NS2 can be drawn upon his vital role and previous history of convincing Europe to institute a sanctions regime against Russia — a likely scenario of continuation.
In the event of a Trump re-election, we can simply extrapolate the administration’s actions over these last four years. That is unless Trump can use his second term to pursue the improved Russo-American relations he initially had pursued with Russiagate now losing its appeal. With this freedom to maneuver, dropping sanctions against NS2 can potentially be used as a bargaining chip.
For Russia, the crux of the issue lies in the bipartisan support for the sanctions. Russia should adhere to its current strategic plans and not rely on a favorable outcome in the election for their removal. Even so, the election period itself is unlikely to bring any sharp-pointed tools with the potential to terminate the project, as the result in November will occur at a time when Nord Stream II is projected to be completed. It will be too late, and a “kill-switch” can, therefore, only be found in the actions of the present, which are currently en route to the Senate.
An ideal scenario would entail a tripartite summit involving Russia, USA, and Europe to find a solution to the issue — a push towards an entente. Given the current complexity of affairs, however, it would require a strong willingness from all parties involved, a willingness that has been absent from the American side.
From our partner RIAC
The U.S. Oil Ambitions Threaten Economy and Sovereignty of Syria
From the very beginning an open U.S. intervention in the Syrian conflict caused heated discussions in the world community concerning legality of activities of the White House in Syria. Many political experts and officials repeatedly spread the opinion that the U.S. military presence in Syria has no legal basis, despite the participation of the U.S.-led International coalition in the fight against ISIS.
The particular interest in legality of the U.S. presence in Syria is caused by its undisguised concern for extraction of Syrian oil, which fields had come under control of pro-American Kurdish groups after military operations. Moreover, economic reasons for U.S. forces participation in the Syrian conflict have been personally announced by Donald Trump during one of his press conferences. And all this was after a long time since the official announcement of a clear victory over ISIS in Syria.
According to official statistics reflecting the Syrian economy, it is possible to see how harmful a long-term war with the terrorist organizations and intervention of foreign countries was for Damascus. For example, the oil industry had been playing a very important role in budgeting Syria and average oil production had been 385 thousand barrels per day. At this moment, as a result of the conflict and the economic crisis in conjunction with assignment of the largest oil fields by the U.S. forces in the Eastern Syria the oil production index fell 24 times, and the total damage to the Syrian economy amounted to 400 billion U.S. dollars. According to the Syrian government advisory council, the oil industry of the country will be able to reach the level of 2011 not earlier than in 5 years at best.
It should be especially noted the recent agreement of the American oil company “Delta Crescent Energy” with Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria to develop and modernize existing oil fields. At the same time it is really hard to know something about this company; it has no markets, own oil refineries and even a website. And the fact that it was founded by the former American official only strengthens an ordinary opinion about close ties between “Delta Crescent Energy” and the U.S. Ministry of Defense.
Not only does this agreement indirectly confirms the White House’s concern for preserving the military contingent in Syria, it also poses a serious threat to the sovereignty of the Arab state and its integrity. Having relied on the Kurdish administration, Washington will create preconditions for an independence of Kurds from the rest of Syria that will increase existing tensions between the largest ethnic groups of Syria. Thus, the U.S. by supporting Kurds got an allied regional formation that protects the oilfields.
The U.S. policy in the Middle East is successful if we estimate it from the side of oil companies’ administrations close to the White House. However, from the point of view of those countries, where Washington interfered in the pursuit of crude oil, suffer huge economic losses along with damage to their state integrity. The Syrian economy is seriously harmed by the ongoing conflict and Western sanctions. And such aggressive policy of the United States is only worsening a humanitarian disaster in Syria.
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