President Putin's recent moves in the Middle East - to shore up Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria through deployment of combat aircraft, equipment, and manpower and build-out of air-, naval-, and ground-force bases, and the agreement in the last week with Iran, Iraq, and Syria on intelligence and security cooperation - could contribute to Russian efforts to combat the myriad negative pressures on Russia's vital energy industry.
Live by Energy...
Energy is the foundation of Russia, its economy, its government, and its political system. Putin has highlighted on various occasions the contribution Russia's mineral wealth, in particular oil and natural gas, must make for Russia to be able to sustain economic growth, promote industrial development, catch up with the developed economies, and modernize Russia's military and military industry.
Even a casual glance at the IMF's World Economic Outlook statistics for Russia shows the tight correlation since 1992 between GDP growth on the one hand and oil and gas output, exports, and prices on the other (economic series available here). According to the IMF's 2015 Article Iv Consultation-Press Release and Staff Report, published August 3, oil and natural gas exports comprised 65 percent of exports, 52 percent of the Federal government budget, and 14.5 percent of GDP in 2014. Including their domestic contribution, hydrocarbons represent ~30 percent of GDP.
While oil and natural gas are crucial to Russia, Russia's crude and natural gas are crucial to its neighbors on the Eurasian landmass. Russia supplied about 30 percent (146.6 bcm) of Europe's natural gas in 2014, and about 25 percent of its crude (3.5 mmbbl/day) in 2013. Russia's oil and natural gas are also important to its Asian and Central Asian neighbors.
It is not only the commodities that make Russia crucial, but its massive land-based infrastructure for their distribution throughout the Eurasian landmass. As Tatiana Mitrova, head of the oil and gas department, Energy Research Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, pointed out regarding natural gas in The Geopolitics of Russian Natural Gas:
"Russia has a unique transcontinental infrastructure in the heart of Eurasia (150,000 km of trunk pipelines), which also makes it a backbone of the evolving, huge Eurasian gas market (which could include Europe, North Africa, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Caspian Sea region, and Northeast Asia). Control over the transportation assets in this region together with vast gas reserves make Russia the key element of this new market."
The land-based oil distribution network is smaller, but also important. The 4,000 km Druzhba pipeline delivers about 1 mmbbl/day of crude to Europe—about 30 percent of total shipments to Europe. In the Far East, Rosneft shipped 22.6 million tons of crude to China in 2014 through the East Siberian Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline.
The Russian government continues to seek to extend and expand the natural gas distribution infrastructure—into Europe, with various proposed pipeline projects (Nord Stream 2, Turkish Stream 2, 3, and 4, South European Pipeline), and into China, with two large pipeline projects, Power of Siberia Pipeline (to supply China from East Siberia), and the proposed Altai pipeline (to supply China from West Siberia).
…Death by Energy
In the last few years, the threats to Russia's energy industry have multiplied and intensified. They pose an existential threat to the industry and therefore to the Russian economy:
- The revenues Russia can earn from its crude and natural gas exports face intense pressure. The Saudi decision to let the market set prices and to pursue market share, has led to steep declines in crude and petroleum product prices. The decision also has impacted natural gas export prices negatively, since, for Russia's long-term supply agreements, they wholly or partially are indexed to oil prices. The transition in Europe to hybrid natural gas pricing models (which take European spot hub prices into account) also has pressured natural gas pricing. (Natural gas data from Gazprom).