WASHINGTON -- Behind the decision facing President Bush on
whether to make war on Iraq is a set of calculations that ought to
be called the realpolitik of oil -- and Russia is at the center.
Since Sept. 11, oil experts and politicians, including President
Vladimir V. Putin, have been promoting Russia and its burgeoning
energy sector as the strategic antidote to the threat of another oil
shock. The big fears are of war in the Middle East or a move
orchestrated against Western interests by Saudi Arabia and the
Persian Gulf heavyweights in OPEC, as unlikely as that has seemed
for a long time. Many oil traders say there is a $3 to $5 premium on
Middle Eastern oil already, because of war jitters.
But Moscow has been engaged in a strategic migration to the West
since Sept. 11 that buttresses the view of Russia as a critical
partner to the West. And this is changing the psychology of both the
marketplace and geopolitics.
Neither Bush nor Putin would be impolitic enough to say he has
been drawing up an insurance policy against allies -- the stable oil-
producing kingdoms and sheikdoms that have abandoned the notion that
oil is a weapon in global politics.
But even if loyalty and alliance hold between Washington and its
Persian Gulf friends, who can say what the effect would be if Saddam
Hussein fired Scud missiles loaded with anthrax, mustard gas or some
ghastly radiological substance onto the main Saudi oil loading
terminal at Ras Tanura, causing panic and shutdown?
And since Sept. 11, there has been an additional, intangible
element corroding Saudi-U.S. relations -- something between
uncertainty and mistrust over the heavy Saudi representation among
Osama bin Laden's martyrs and the Saudi tolerance for the culture of
jihad. The Saudis, for their part, resent the loss of U.S.
initiative to secure a Palestinian homeland, so evident under the
elder George Bush and during most of the Bill Clinton years. Today,
America and Saudi Arabia drink tea laced with the hemlock of
unstated recriminations. "The psychological factor is there," an
adviser to the royal family conceded.
In the world of realpolitik, public reassurances about stable oil
supplies count only up to a point. Capabilities matter, just as they
will in any war with Iraq, where President Bush will have to weigh
the risks of going it alone, or nearly so.
Last fall, Bush told his energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, to
add 108 million barrels of oil to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
But that offers the U.S. market just one layer of shock absorption.
"The first principle of energy security is diversification," said
Daniel Yergin, the oil markets analyst and historian, and by that
measure Russia suddenly figures in international energy markets. The
post-Soviet sag in gross oil production is steadily being reversed;
indeed, Russia overtook Saudi Arabia this spring by pumping 7.28
million barrels a day in March. In annual figures, Russian oil
exports, which bottomed at 3.16 million barrels a day in 1994, are
expected to reach 5 million a day this year or next.
"The Russian oil industry is growing at an amazing rate, and it
is bringing in Western talent, technology and investment, but most
of all it needs markets," said Sarah C. Carey, a Washington lawyer
who is on the board of Russia's second-largest oil giant, Yukos,
which wants to supply U.S. refineries. By playing on the West's fear
of disruption, Russia has found greater tolerance for its bully-boy
tactics in the oil markets since Sept. 11; the only sound from the
Saudis has been the gnashing of teeth.
But here is the rub of the debate: Russia cannot supplant Saudi
Arabia as the world's guarantor of stable oil supplies in a clutch.
"They are at full production," the adviser to the Saudi royal family
said, referring to Russia. "Everybody is at full production except
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Venezuela. …