Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin drew the world’s attention with his speech at the UN General Assembly in New York. To most Russia-watchers, the speech was a continuation of his confrontational performance in 2007, when he lobbed a litany of accusation and grievances at the United States and its NATO allies at the Munich Security Conference.
Though in his UN speech Putin did make verbal gestures towards the creation of alliances against the threat of global terrorism—patterned on the kinds of pacts made to fight the Nazis—Russia’s actions right after the speech, like proceeding to fly sorties without giving more than an hour notice to the United States and its allies, betrayed his contempt for cooperation. And though the Kremlin still describes its operation as being in defense of a government that has asked for its help, the repeated violations of Turkish airspace by Russian fighter jets, and yesterday’s showy firing of cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea, all are meant to highlight Russian might, and to signal that Russia is not to be trifled with.
I have argued before that the aggressiveness of the Russian authorities is directly linked to oil prices. This is a pattern typical of many petrostates. Studies have shown that petrostates tend to become more violent and start conflicts when oil prices rise sharply. On average if the price of oil is above the threshold of $77 per barrel (in 2008 dollars), petrostates become 30% more aggressive than non-exporters. And when oil dips below $33 per barrel, petrostates tend to be even more peace-loving than ordinary countries. Theories abound explaining the correlation: high oil prices insulate petrostates’ elites from the consequences of foreign misadventures by giving them the means to buy the loyalty of domestic constituencies should something go wrong. Oil money also helps fund the military, giving the elites the tools to pursue their ambitions abroad.
During the recent oil price peak of 2008, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez expelled their U.S. ambassadors, Venezuela mobilized for war with Colombia, and Iran backed Hamas attacks against Israel. During the sharp rise in oil prices in 1970 and 1980, Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, and Libya made repeated incursions into Chad.
For its part, Russia has behaved just like any other petrostate. In the early 2000s, when the oil price was about $25 per barrel, Putin sought to cooperate with the West, even going so far as to speculate on the possibility of Russia eventually joining NATO. In 2002, when the price for a barrel of Urals crude was about $20 per barrel, in his address to the Federal Assembly, Putin spoke about prioritizing Russia’s European integration and about taking steps towards creating a common economic space with the EU. In 2014, when oil prices reached $110, Putin invaded Ukraine to punish it for an attempt to create the same common economic space with the EU. The unprecedentedly aggressive Munich speech was delivered in a period of sustained growth in oil prices—a period described by Russian nationalists as “Russia getting up off its knees”.
The above theory, however, does not explain why the Russian leadership continues to behave aggressively and delivers Munich-style speeches under currently falling and volatile oil prices (~$40–50 per barrel in August-October 2015). One possibility is that Russia’s behavior on the world stage is a function of both current oil prices and expected oil prices. As Vladislav Inozemtsev recently wrote, “Russia’s government has realized that although the current crisis is longer than in 2008, the outcome will be the same. If in 2009 oil prices jumped back in eight months, today they will bounce back within three years.”
If you pay attention to what they say when discussing economic matters, Putin and his top advisors are simply obsessed with the idea that oil prices will bounce back in the near future. Recently, LUKOIL vice president Leonid Fedun predicted that already in 2016, oil prices will return to the levels of $100 per barrel. The president of Rosneft and a known member of Putin’s closest circles Igor Sechin is similarly optimistic. Due to this oil price obsession, Russian politician Ivan Starikov likened the Russian leadership to a religious order. In Starikov’s own words:
The Russian government, which chose the tactics of budget expense optimization without offering any (even short term) efficient measures to revive the economic growth, is a sect of ‘Witnesses of Higher Oil Prices’. They even dropped a three-year fiscal plans in favor of a one-year program for the year of 2016 by literally justifying such move with volatility of the hydrocarbons prices.
Such semi-religious faith is one of the regular excuses the Kremlin uses for persistently postponing economic reforms that are vital for Russia, and that are long overdue. The reforms aren’t needed, the reasoning goes; one just has to endure until the end of the oil price crisis.
However, the expectations of the future growth of oil prices held by Russian officials and businessmen (and, let’s be honest, mostly by them alone) could be based on something beyond their quasi-religious conviction. It is possible that such expectations also rely on their more informed understanding of the nature and long-term goals of the Russian military adventure that has just kicked off in Syria. Andrei Illarionov, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, did not rule out that the possible result of Russian military operations may be not so much the defeat of Islamic terrorists as the destabilization of the Middle East, which might eventually lead to an increase in world oil prices. (Andrew Critchlow from The Telegraph points out that similar considerations made Russia engage in Afghanistan back in 1979.)
Some analysts stress that it seems counter-intuitive for Russia to back Assad—a Shi’a Muslim—in the conflict, given that Russia’s own Muslim population is almost exclusively Sunni and could get needlessly antagonized by the move. Yet if one of the Kremlin’s goals in Syria includes imposing costs on an increasingly overstretched Saudi Arabia—which supports the Sunnis in the conflict and currently is stubbornly holding oil prices down—that risk may be worth bearing. A meeting between Russian and Saudi officials to discuss energy prices is apparently scheduled for the end of the month. Could some kind of frank discussion ensue?
This is of course all just a theory, and a difficult one to prove at that. Additionally, it’s all too easy to ascribe tactical genius to an actor who is merely improvising and having a temporary good run of luck. Is the Kremlin really seeing all the angles so well? But it’s an interesting model to think about, and if it is true, it holds an important caveat for policymakers: if Russia gets its way and oil prices jump in the near term, you should not expect a satisfied Vladimir Putin to seek to transform his country into a status quo power. On the contrary.