Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Putin the puppet master

I had a letter published in Publius Pundit, another one of Kim Zigfeld's blogs. The letter was about possible Russian motivations for backing the Burma's military junta: sparking conflict and raising the price of oil and natural gas. This appears to be a favorite strategy of Putin's regime, as the Russsians seem to have done something similar in Venezuela and Iran by backing Hugo Chávez's and the ayatollahs' regimes. Here is the full text of the letter that I sent in response to this posting:

Dear Publius Pundit,

Here's something else to keep in mind when exploring Russia's relationships with energy-rich states: Russia has huge reserve of oil and natural gas, and any jump in the price of these commodities will first and foremost raise energy revenue that the Russian government receives. Since the resource-driven economic boom is the primary reason why Putin's support is so high (another being those oh-so-convenient Chechens), maintaining high energy prices are key to Putin's ambitions for the Russian state.

This preoccupation with energy, though, leads the Russians to do some pretty treacherous things. For example, in the late 1990s they allegedly trained Ayman al-Zawahiri (bin Laden's sidekick – or perhaps the true leader of al-Qaeda). Just a few months later, al-Zawahiri's terrorist group was incredibly interested in and well-informed of plans by Americans to build a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan and ease the Russian's quasi-monopoly in the region. Later, al-Qaeda attacks American embassies in East Africa, which was believed by many to be a provocation of the US, trying to get them to enter Afghanistan. Though there was no invasion, the oil pipeline was shelved shortly after the attacks. Interestingly enough, all of this is right about the time when the price of oil starts skyrocketing – in early 1999 the price of oil had fallen to about $12 per barrel, but has increased fairly regularly ever since, to the point where it is now 1000% of the price that it was less than a decade ago. Much of this increase in prices was no doubt due to the ramifications of US policy in the Middle East in response to periodic attacks by al-Qaeda.

And Burma is not the only place where we see Russia abetting regimes that have been drawing the ire of the United States: Iran, too, has been helped by Russia in developing something (at minimum nuclear power, and at most nuclear weapons) that doesn't seem to benefit Russia much at all. Iran (like Burma) is a relatively poor country that wouldn't seem to be in the position to pay lots of money for expensive nuclear reactors, especially given its own enormous energy reserves. Security interests don't seem too great, since both Russia and the US have enough weapons to inflict more damage than they'd ever want, and an attack on Russia by any country is pretty unthinkable. And Russia, by supporting the regimes, is putting itself at risk of being criticized. So what's in it for Russia? An American invasion of Iran – with the world's second-largest reserves of natural gas, and third-largest reserves of oil – would surely send the price of oil skyrocketing past $200 a barrel, and that couldn't be bad for Putin. Just something to think about.

Erratum: it's not actually Kim Zigfeld's blog, but rather a blog for which she's a regular contributer.

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