Moscow's Oil Weapon

Moscow's Oil Weapon

Many are saying Russia’s new energy wealth will enable it to wreak havoc in Europe and challenge America’s position. At a Nixon Center event, a panel separated fact from fiction.

Americans have been hearing a lot about Russia's newest foreign-policy "weapon": its vast energy supplies. But how should the United States and Western Europe respond? That was the subject of conversation today at the Nixon Center, where three commentators tried to discern Moscow's motives and laid out the options available to policy makers on both sides of the Atlantic. The discussion was moderated by Marvin Kalb, senior fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

First to speak was the executive director of the Nixon Center, Paul Saunders. He sought to clarify the challenges posed by Russia's energy reserves, drawing on his meetings with German, French, British and Polish colleagues over the last year. He described the white paper that emerged from these sessions, Russian Energy and European Security: A Transatlantic Dialogue, as an attempt to achieve greater insight into the problem, which was drawn into stark relief by the 2006 Ukraine-Gazprom dispute over natural gas prices.

Saunders outlined the "real concerns" of Europe and America on the issue. Chief among them: that Russia could manipulate energy supply or prices for strategic gain and that cash windfalls will encourage a "broader assertiveness" in Russian foreign policy. There is "some justification for concern in each area," he said, but the "reality is more complex than the op-ed page."

Just because energy leverage has become one of the main tools of Russian foreign policy, Saunders said, that does not necessarily mean that Moscow will use its oil (or natural gas) to deliberately provoke a "major confrontation with Western countries." In fact, he argued that in Western Europe, we are unlikely to see a repeat of Russia's sometimes-belligerent behavior toward its former Soviet clients.

With this in mind, Saunders offered some advice for U.S. policymakers. Attributing American anxiety over Russia's energy diplomacy to concerns over the strained transatlantic relationship, he said that the United States should "get back to basics" and strengthen U.S.-Europe ties. Saunders also advised Washington not to compete with Moscow on the energy front, instead channeling its abilities into the political and cultural spheres-and the military arena, should that become necessary.


One major way that Washington could reduce Moscow's leverage would be to develop common policies with Europe toward Russia and on energy, Saunders said. He argued that recognizing Russia's foreign-policy objectives are often pursued by separate actors and engaging in dialogue when possible-acting "on an individual basis rather than a comprehensive way"-would be more effective than the current approach. He did, however, say that Europe and the United States need to draw "red lines" for Russia's leaders: namely, that Moscow should not use its energy wealth to redraw borders or topple governments.

Fellow panelist Angela Stent, Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, agreed with much of Saunders' analysis. She said concern in the United States and Europe over Russia's use of energy has been "exaggerated" and that the West must separate commercial and economic motivations from strategic ones, which sometimes become muddled in the Russian government.


Stent argued that varying conceptions of "energy security" in Washington and Moscow are the root of many problems. While the United States sees this term as merely encompassing security of supply, Russia covets control over transport routes and agreements that "lock in" demand.

Western Europeans in fact see Russia as a "reliable supplier" of energy, Stent noted, because it never used oil or gas as a political tool during the cold war (in contrast to Soviet policy toward Eastern Europe). In their minds, Moscow and Brussels are "fated to coexist" due to an increasingly "interdependent relationship": the former needs cash to buoy its economy, while Europe requires energy. But that's not to say that European leaders are unconcerned with their "asymmetric vulnerability"-if Moscow cuts off the gas it merely loses money; life in Western Europe would come to a screeching halt.

Last to speak was Nikolas K. Gvosdev, editor of The National Interest. He opened his remarks by mentioning comments by the Greek foreign minister and the French ambassador to the United States, who have both expressed confidence that Russia is a "reliable partner" and will keep its word when it commits to energy deals-in contrast to American fears that Moscow will suddenly turn off the tap. Gvosdev highlighted a number of important questions: Do all countries have a right to energy? Are energy producers obligated to produce at a certain level? Should markets dictate energy sales, or does politics have a legitimate place? Is it acceptable for countries to demand influence or other political arrangements in return for resources?

All of these questions remain unresolved in the Atlantic community, Gvosdev said, as Europeans and Americans continue "talking past each other." He also identified a tangible gap between rhetoric and action: if the United States is so concerned about Russian domination over Europe, then why doesn't it try harder to resolve tensions over Cyprus, where nearby natural gas fields could provide an alternative to buying energy from Moscow?

To conclude the session, Kalb drew a contrast between the last time an energy-producing power chose to use the "oil weapon"-the 1970s OPEC boycott-and the present. But he argued that this is not analogous to today's situation: Russia depends upon the cash it receives for its natural gas and oil, to which it owes much of its material success over recent years. Would newly elected President Dimitri Medvedev lightly choose to break off this "essential" source of income? Perhaps the West has less to fear than is often assumed.


Andrew E. Title is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.