11 Feb RESOURCE WARS À LA KREMLIN
By Mercedes Abdalla
The Russian leadership has indiscriminately been using its natural resources as a tool to exert political pressure – be it against its adversaries or allies. And new episodes are in full swing of Russia’s resource war series. A long-running dispute over gas supplies between Ukraine’s Naftogaz and the Russian gas giant, Gazprom has been paralyzing the already extensively worsened relations between the two countries. Still in June 2014, arguably in order to exert additional political and economic pressure on its Eastern neighbor, Gazprom took to court its Eastern counterpart over the ‘take-or-pay’ clause – “requiring buyers to pay for gas whether they take physical delivery or not” . Though the arbitration court rejected Gazprom’s billions-worth claim on this issue, gas purchases will be still sold to Naftogaz on prepayment, not making better of Ukrainian energy security.
At the same, news emerged that Belarus – one of Moscow’s long-standing allies – has been increasingly turning to Iran in a vow to diversify its oil supplies. After sealing a deal with Tehran, Belarus has so far purchased two million barrels of crude oil from Tehran. This move came after Russian attempts to cut exports of crude oil supply to the country in 2016, allegedly due to gas price row  . ‘Why?’ one may wonder. Just as it was with Ukraine, the Kremlin sought to grab Minsk ‘by the throat’. The Russian leadership once again used its vantage position in natural resources. When Belarus had started flirting with the EU – expressing its continuous criticism on Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine – and entered a visa-free regime with several countries from the West Gazprom simply increased the price of gas sales to its neighbour.
The Russian resource meddling has not only caused tensions in its so-called ‘sphere of influence’, but it has similarly making cracks in the ‘European project’. By now it has become conventional wisdom that the EU is simply dependent on Russian gas and oil supplies. Though efforts have been made to diversify the European energy (import) portfolio, Gazprom has retained “its position as the main supplier of crude oil and natural gas” . Maintaining the grip on Europe’s natural gas tap has been undeniably putting Moscow in a political advantage, creating substantial division among Member States during times when diplomatic relations between the EU and Russia are at their worst since the Cold War.
One of the most recent examples of this is the environment-friendly Austrian government’s pledge to sue the European Commission for giving green light to Hungary’s planned expansion of its nuclear plant on the outskirts of Budapest. Hungary, which is also heavily dependent on Russian gas, announced that the building of the two additional reactors would begin in 2018 . The fact that it will be carried out by the Kremlin’s state-owned Rosatom and will be largely financed by a Russian loan should not catch one off guard too much. Not only because Hungarian PM Orbán has embarked on the path of the (in)famous ‘illiberal democracies’, but also due to Russia’s continuous successful maneuvering, causing division among the European community.
The above, however, only presents some recent snapshots of the Russian resource assertivitis. Using its gas and oil resources as power instruments and often times as means for exerting geopolitical leverage in its neighborhood has eventually become one of the Kremlin’s foreign policy tools and hybrid tactics in conflict situations. This, in turn, also brings us to the complexity of resources in the broader security domain; as much as they might be root causes of conflicts, they are inevitably used as weapons of war. In our times, when security as such has become to underpin every aspect of our existence, addressing resources both as causal roots of conflicts and as asymmetric means in political confrontation is of equal importance.