Is Russia Plotting to Bring Down OPEC?

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 28, 2015. (Photo: United Nations)

Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent moves in the Middle East—providing military support to President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria and reaching an agreement last week with Iran, Iraq and Syria on intelligence and security cooperation—could help Russia combat the myriad pressures on Russia's vital energy industry.

Live by energy

Energy is the foundation of Russia’s economy, government and political system. Putin has highlighted on various occasions the contribution that 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 developed economies and modernize Russia's military.

Even a casual glance at the IMF's World Economic Outlook statistics for Russia shows the tight correlation since 1992 between GDP growth and oil and gas output, exports and prices. According to the IMF, oil and natural gas exports comprised 65 percent of exports, 52 percent of the federal budget and 14.5 percent of GDP in 2014. Including their domestic contribution, hydrocarbons represent roughly 30 percent of GDP.

Russia's oil and natural gas are also crucial to its neighbors. Russia supplied about 30 percent of Europe's natural gas in 2014 and about 25 percent of its crude in 2013. Russia's oil and natural gas are also important to its Asian and Central Asian countries.

Russia’s massive land-based distribution infrastructure is crucial throughout the Eurasian landmass as well. As Tatiana Mitrova, head of the oil and gas department for the Energy Research Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said, "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. … Control over the transportation assets in this region together with vast gas reserves make Russia the key element of this new market."

Die by energy

Russia’s energy export revenues face intense pressure. The Saudi decision to let the market set prices and pursue market share has led to steep declines in crude and petroleum product prices. The decision has also 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 also has pressured natural gas pricing.

Adding to the revenue pain, natural gas export volumes have been falling, according to Gazprom (which has a monopoly on pipeline exports), as have domestic volumes within Russia. It is therefore not surprising that the IMF has projected sharp declines in 2015 and 2016 from 2014 levels for oil export revenues ($109.8 billion and $96 billion, respectively) and natural gas export revenues ($12 billion and $14.3 billion, respectively). Since these IMF projections are based on $60.1 and $65.8 per-barrel prices in 2015 and 2016, oil export revenues will undershoot these pessimistic IMF projections, as crude prices are projected to stay below $60 through 2016 (EIA estimates for Brent are $54.07 and 58.57 in 2015 and 2016, respectively).

The U.S. and E.U. sanctions on Russia, imposed after Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and invasion and informal annexation of eastern Ukraine, will pile more pressure on the Russian energy industry. They include bans on financing for and the supply of critical equipment and technology to important Russian energy projects. Novatek and its partners Total and the Chinese National Petroleum Company still lack $15 billion of the $27 billion needed to finance the Yamal LNG plant. Denis Khramov, Russia's deputy minister of natural resources, said that Rosneft and Gazprom are delaying some offshore drilling by two to three years because of sanctions and low oil prices. The sanctions are also impeding Gazprom's ability to develop the Chayandinskoye and Kovyktinskoye fields in eastern Siberia, from which it plans to supply natural gas to China under the bilateral $400-billion, 30-year deal signed in 2014.

Following the Russian invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, The European Union is now even more determined to reduce its dependence on Russia for natural gas and to force Gazprom to submit to E.U. competition rules. Europe has sought and continues to seek alternatives to Russian natural gas (among them, U.S. LNG and Iranian pipeline and/or LNG). The European Commission, the European Union's executive body, has refused to bless Gazprom's proposed Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline project, citing an existing surplus of Gazprom pipeline capacity into Europe and insufficient future demand for Russian natural gas. Also, the E.U. Commission in April charged Gazprom with violating the E.U.'s anti-trust laws for anti-competitive practices and unfair pricing in Central and Eastern Europe. If found guilty, Gazprom could face fines of around $1 billion. Even if Gazprom avoids fines and manages to reach a settlement with the European Union, as it hopes to do, its European market share and pricing will remain under pressure into the future.

The emergence of the United States and Canada as powerful crude, LNG and natural gas producers is also a major concern for the Russian economy. This has transformed the United States from a market for Russian crude and natural gas (via LNG) to a global competitor. If, as seems increasingly likely, the ban on crude exports is lifted, U.S. crude will compete with Russian crude in several key markets. It would also force foreign suppliers to seek other markets for all or part of the exports they previously sent to the United States. This in turn would intensify competition among these crude exporting countries for share in those markets. In regard to natural gas, its explosive output growth in the United States undercut Gazprom's rationale for its Baltic LNG project, turned the U.S. into an LNG competitor in global LNG import markets and, via the U.S. toll- and Henry Hub-pricing model, weakened Gazprom's ability to insist on oil-indexed, long-term contracts.

Saving Russian energy (and Russia) through the Middle East?

Putin's moves in the Middle East could help Russia address the impact of these threats to the Russian energy industry. They potentially enhance the attractiveness of Russian crude and natural gas supplies compared to those from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies.

In the selection of crude and natural gas suppliers, security is a key consideration for importers. Wary of U.S. naval power, the Chinese, for example, prefer pipeline natural gas supplies over seaborne LNG supplies. Importers therefore must take into consideration the potential threats to transport. In this critical area, Russia enjoys a decided advantage over Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab producers, which depend on sea transport through the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea to ship their oil and LNG.

Each of the three routes from these two bodies of water passes through a "choke point" (from the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal to Europe and through the Mandeb Strait to Asia, and from the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz). By adding an airbase to their military presence in Syria, the Russians—coordinating with Iran, Syria’s Assad and possibly Iraq at some point—would have the capability to disrupt shipments from Persian Gulf and Red Sea terminals.

Russia's export channels are less susceptible to disruption. With the exception of LNG exports to Asia from Sakhalin, Russia sends natural gas to its customers via pipeline. About 70 percent of Russia's seaborne oil exports are susceptible to choke points (shipments from two ports on the Gulf of Finland through the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic and one port on the Black Sea through the Turkish Strait/Bosporus to the Mediterranean), while 30 percent are not (pipeline shipments to Europe and ESPO pipeline shipments to the port of Primorsk near Vladivostok).

Putin's moves also are strengthening Russia's influence with OPEC. Russia already has extensive and close ties with Iran and Venezuela, and is now laying the basis for such ties with Iraq. Putin has aligned Russia with OPEC's have-nots—the members lacking the financial resources to withstand low crude prices for an extended period and that have objected to Saudi policies (Iran, Iraq, Angola, Nigeria, Libya, Algeria, Ecuador and Venezuela)—against the haves (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar). He has continually supported Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's calls for an emergency OPEC meeting on prices and his efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia to reverse its policy. At the beginning of September, Putin told Maduro that the two countries "must team up to shore up oil prices."

In addition, Russia's deputy prime minister in charge of energy policy, Arkady Dvorkovich, made comments that mocked Saudi policy, saying that "OPEC producers are suffering the ricochet effects of their attempt to flush out rivals by flooding the world with excess output," expressing doubt that OPEC members "really want to live with low oil prices for a long time," and implying that Saudi policy is irrational.

Indeed, Russia can be seen as maneuvering to split OPEC into two blocs, with Russia, although not a member, persuading the "Russian bloc" to isolate Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab OPEC members within OPEC. This might persuade the Saudis to seek a compromise with the have-nots.

A strategic alliance with Iran and Iraq offers Putin two more potential avenues by which to pressure the Saudis. They can test Saudi determination to defend their market share at any price and its financial wherewithal to do so. Iran claims it can raise crude output by 1 million barrels within six or so months of the lifting of sanctions. The Saudis may be calculating that Iran must first rehabilitate its oil fields and that Iran, cash poor, cannot do so quickly. If this is the case, Russia could step in, offer Iran financing, and force the Saudis to contemplate prices staying lower longer than they anticipated and therefore continuing pressure on their economy.

Russia also could cooperate with Iran and Iraq to take market share from Saudi Arabia in the vital Chinese market. As a recent Bloomberg article pointed out, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Iraq and other countries are vying intensely for sales to China, the second-largest import market and the major source of demand growth in coming years. Coordinating their pricing and consistently offering the Chinese prices below the Saudi price, they could seek to win market share. Such a price war would pressure the competitors' currencies.


Each of these opportunities offers the possibility to address the pressures on the Russian energy industry. However, Putin will have to play his cards carefully. Played heavy-handedly, he could intensify fears in Europe of excessive dependence on Russian energy supplies and awaken such fears in China. This could lead the Europeans and Chinese to search for other suppliers. In addition, mismanaged confrontation with the United States and Europe over Syria could lead to the broadening and strengthening of economic and financial sanctions. Moreover, neither Iran nor Iraq will want to become overly dependent on Russia, which lacks the resources they need to develop their energy industries.

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