Khrushchev, Gorbachev, Putin , Ukraine and Oil

How many of you have ever been to Russia? It is a fascinating place filled with fascinating people. While in Russia facilitating an Aspen Global Forum of U.S. and Russian leaders,  I visited Nikita Khrushchev’s grave. He lies under six feet of earth — probably  banging his shoe and confessing that he still wishes he could have incrementally changed Russia.  He was not Gorbachev, but neither was he Rasputin.

On top of his grave was a very attractive gravestone. One half was white, the other half black. I asked the workmen what it meant.They explained the contrast by indicating that Khrushchev was part evil doer of black deeds, but also in part a good man who wanted to change Russia.

The gravestone seems to fit the current situation in Russia. It is a place of great thinkers, great writers, great dancers, great scientists and decent people, but it is also the land of Putin whose modus operandi is often dark and destructive. Putin is no Gorbachev!

In the present Ukrainian situation, the dark and dangerous side of Russian leadership is visible. Currently proposed Western sanctions are not persuasive. Paraphrasing, we won’t come to the G8 meeting in Sochi  and we won’t have any more relationships with your military are not earth shattering.Trade limits or sanctions, if announced, may hurt, but Russia’s ability to cut off natural gas to Europe and the Ukraine as a counter measure will marginalize any effort to develop meaningful  responses. Obama and his colleagues do not want to engage in military sanctions in order to counter Putin’s new version of our own Monroe Doctrine.

Speaking of energy, oil, and natural gas, most energy related U.S and Russian executives have not been told to slow down or avoid searching for new businesses in Russia. As a recent CNBC report indicated, “ the U.S. produces more natural gas than any other nation and Russia is now the biggest oil producer.” U.S. firms are seeking an increased stake in  Russian oil, which is light and good for gasoline.  U.S. companies are even building the rigs for Russian drillers. While the U.S. imports relatively little oil from Russia, this could change depending on price. Russia is still among the top five importers of oil to the U.S.  In light of the Russian actions in Crimea, the price of gas at the pump is expected to head up again. The stakes are high, and at the present time, no government leader in either nation has seriously suggested interfering with the export and import trade network between U.S. and Russia.

I suspect that the U.S. and Russia will eventually agree to a deal on some sort of a pullback in Crimea and the possibility of a monitored arrangement concerning Russians living in both Crimea and the eastern part of Ukraine. I could be wrong. Russia could insist on remaining in or even annexing the Crimea and it could invade part of Eastern Ukraine.  I pray neither happens!

Would we react militarily in some form or manner, as we have at times in the Middle East in order to secure oil and gas supplies for the Ukraine and other needy western nations? I think not!  Such a provocation would lead to war and is  beyond the pale  for even ardent proponents of “getting tough” with Russia.  Indeed, because Russia’s military is strong, the U.S. and the West will most likely avoid any significant direct military response to possible Russian occupation/annexation of of the Crimea and even eastern Ukraine.

Possible high impact economic sanctions — different from the ‘I won’t come to your meetings and you cannot come to ours’ brand — would not be favored by most Western European countries or even the Ukraine, as they are dependent on Russia’s natural gas.  At the present time, the real options we have to counter Russia’s nefarious activities are not the best ones. While we could fulfill some of our allies’needs by exporting natural gas and oil, the decision to do so deserves (and I suspect is getting) hard analysis, especially in light of domestic U.S economic, political and security concerns about supply as well as demand and a fear of environmental problems, as well as increased consumer costs at the pump here at home. If shipping overseas passes muster, moving natural gas to our European allies and Ukraine could work both in providing needed gas and in possibly negatively affecting the price of Russian gas. Despite acknowledging the theoretical goal of oil independence, the world, including the U.S., is oil and gas dependent. We are lucky to have natural gas in ample supply, and if sane environmental regulations are applied, we can limit related methane and GHG emissions as well as other pollutants. Finally, we have an evolving and growing alternative fuel sector testing and developing renewable fuels.  Opening up U.S. fuel markets and fuel stations to increasingly available flex fuel vehicles and alternative fuels for consumers, including natural gas based ethanol and methanol, as well as electricity, can make us less dependent.

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