Oil wars and the way to respond to Russia

When the history of the last few years comes to be written it will be likely that historians see the last decade as a decade of wars about oil. The US and UK interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were not just a response to terrorism. They were also about creating democratic regimes governing or close to the oil fields that would be sympathetic to western needs. The West has been less keen to undertake military adventures for regime change in tyrannies without proximity to oil. The US sees the Middle East as a crucial area to influence because it is now a heavy importer of energy.

Putin’s latest assertions of Russian power has only been possible thanks to oil and gas. The giddy rises in the oil price in recent years has filled the Russian coffers and helped pay for the renewed military machine he used in Georgia. His whole political strategy geared to increasing Russian influence and exerting control over territories of the former Soviet Union clustered around Russia is based on the control and exploitation of oil and gas reserves. One of Georgia’s offences is the pipeline that runs across its soil which Russia does not directly control.

The Western response to Putin’s rise has been slow and contradictory. On the one hand the West has decided to continue to treat Russia as a normal democratic state, trying to keep it in the framework of diplomacy through the UN, the G8 and other international fora. On the other hand the West understandably excludes it from NATO, occasionally uses tougher language to condemn Russian actions and speeches, and offers friendship and military support to several of the countries Russia would like within its sphere of influence.

This ambiguity is all too clear once faced with the challenge of the Russian military action within the independent state of Georgia. Russia used the argument familiar to students of 1930s Germany that it needed to intervene to assist the Russian minority within another state. The West rejects this argument on the grounds that one state should not violate the territory and kill the citizens of another state. This case would be stronger if the West had not invaded Iraq and used as one of its arguments to need to help the oppressed minorities under Sadam’s regime. This is not an issue which is going to be resolved by the current welcome truce, nor by further debate about the rights of minorities within states and the basis on which international forces can intervene if ever. This is about the raw balance of power between Russia and the West.

The West needs to play this long as Russia is playing it long. The adventure in Georgia was just to test how far the strengthened Russia can now go. It is not the end of the process of Russia building her strength and expanding her influence and territory. The West needs to take much more action to tackle the cause of its own weakness, its dependence on oil and gas imported from volatile parts of the world or from Russia herself.

The US. the UK and the other major European states need to be more energetic in encouraging the exploitation of more gas, oil and coal from within their own boundaries. They need to be install more hydro power, sensible renewables, nuclear – whatever it takes – to cut dependence on imported oil and gas. World markets may give us a breathing space from ever upwardsprpice movements, and may dent Russian revenues for a bit, but price rises can and will resume after the slowdown unless the West does something much more positive to cut its needs for imports. I have set out before what the UK government could do – why the delay, when Georgia has made the point again that there is a strategic need to do this as well as an economic one.