The Putin oil connection
Anne Applebaum notes the correlation between the political ascendancy of Vladimir Putin and the rise in oil prices, asking whether the fortunes of Putin aren't affected by the fluctuation in oil prices. ("Is this analysis too simplistic? Sure it is. But I haven't heard a better explanation.") Anne's observation is dead on, and hardly simplistic.
Leon Aron made precisely this point in our conversation yesterday, noting that the "perfect storm" -- that is, the worst repression and most aggressive foreign policy -- would occur if oil prices spike and Putin returns to the presidency in 2012. Aron recently explained the dynamic that is at work:
For Putin, Russian oil and gas are the foundation of the country's progress, prosperity, and national security -- today and 50 years from now. And it is the Russian state, not people like [convicted billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky], who is the real owner of Russia's hydrocarbon trove. While nationalizing Yukos, Putin permitted other private oil companies to operate, provided their owners understood that they were managing the national wealth, not owning it. Khodorkovsky's first conviction was a reminder of the rules of the game. It now bears a repetition.
For [Russian President Dmitri] Medvedev, who has decried the Russian economy as "chronically backward" and "primitive," precisely because of its dependence on "raw materials," Khodorkovsky is surely also a symbol -- of what he has called "legal nihilism," the "disdainful attitude toward court and law" and "extra-legal influence on courts' actions."
In other words, when oil prices rise, Putin gains strength as the kingpin in a state-dominated economy; when oil prices fall, he suffers a setback, and the influence of (albeit modest) reformers and entrepreneurs, who press for economic diversification and political liberalization, increases.
For those who want to make the case for domestic energy development, they would do well to note that not only would a lessening dependence on foreign oil undermine the despots of the Middle East, but it would also assist the cause of reformers in Russia. If we really want to "reset' Russia, robust exploration and development of domestic gas and oil reserves would be far more productive, I would suggest, than throwing trinkets at Putin's feet (e.g. a poorly negotiated START agreement) or shying away from support for Russian democracy advocates.
| January 4, 2011; 3:15 PM ET
Categories: foreign policy
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