Category Archives: Russia

A Comment on: “A Trans-Atlantic Manifesto in Times of Trump – A German Perspective,” by foreign policy experts

I sent this today to European and American contacts – apologies for duplications.

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

I read with interest the declaration: “In spite of it all, America: A Trans-Atlantic Manifesto in Times of Donald Trump – A German Perspective,” signed by a number of leading German foreign policy experts today in Die Zeit and translated in the NYTimes.
Point 10 is of particular interest and much welcomed as – at long last – a frank characterization in Germany of the Nord Stream 2 project for what it plainly is: “a geopolitical project:”  Quoting:
10. Energy security policy — giving up Nord Stream 2 is in Germany’s interest
There is one more policy area in which the German government should reconsider its position to open the door for productive cooperation: energy security policy. The United States has identified Nord Stream 2, the planned pipeline running through the Baltic Sea to Russia, as a geostrategic project. They are correct. More important: This pipeline project is not in the joint European interest. Nord Stream 2 contradicts a policy of greater energy independence and undermines the envisaged European Energy Union. We should try to identify a joint approach with our European partners and the United States. (emphasis added – T.O’D.)

Further along in the spirit of Trans-Atlanticism, which this manifesto embodies, I should point out that the recent US sanctions bill (enacted by Congress in retaliation for Russian interference in US elections, and to codify into law Obama’s presidential sanctions orders stemming from Russia’s East Ukraine and Crimean interventions, so that Donald Trump cannot easily reverse these) … involved Congress meeting with EU and German diplomats and re-drafting the initial bill so as to take into explicit consideration European concerns.

These concerns were that US sanctions should not unfairly disadvantage European firms over US firms, and should not be imposed on EU firms in a “unilateral” manner, without close consultations with European allies as were carried out by the Obama administration.
In fact, the final version of this bill explicitly requires the Trump Administration to decide to impose any new sanctions on participants in European pipelines or energy projects such as Nord Stream 2 only in “coordination” with the European Union.
The fact that the final drafting of this bill – which Trump was constrained to sign because it was ‘veto proof’ – involved US-EU active cooperation “without and against” President Trump is a significant step in defense of Trans-Atlanticism and in defiance of Trump’s anti-European “America First” policy and of his vision of US “energy independence” as jingoistic “US energy dominance.”
Today’s manifesto by influential German foreign affairs figures advocating further engagement with the USA in spite of (and de facto against) Trump, is a further positive step in this direction.
I should note that the Trump administration has missed the new sanctions bill’s mandated deadline to report to Congress on these issues.  Meanwhile, I am told (some two weeks ago) by reliable sources that “all work has been frozen” by Gazprom’s European-partner firms involved in the NS2 project, awaiting clarity from the White House on what any new sanctions will be and then to understand the longterm impact on their participations.
My recent Berlin Policy Journal article on this, Neue Neue Ostpolitik, and some earlier ones there may be of interest.
Sincerely,
Dr. Thomas W. O’Donnell  ||  Energy & International Affairs
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 – Freie Universität-Berlin …………………………Syllabus: Energizing Europ
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“Neue Neue Ostpolitik” My BPJ piece on German fury at Senate NS2 sanctions

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The US Senate’s decision to expand sanctions against Russia triggered indignation in Berlin, throwing Germany’s geopolitical ambitions over the Nord Stream 2 project into sharp relief.  Read below or get the App.   My other articles at Berlin Policy Journal  

“Neue Neue Ostpolitik”  

Berlin – July 21, 2017    By: Thomas O’Donnell —  On June 15, the US Senate approved an act to sharply expand sanctions imposed on Russia in retaliation for its intervention in eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014. The broadly bi-partisan move that enshrined Barack Obama’s earlier executive orders – intended as a response to Moscow’s alleged cyber interference in US elections – was a stunning rebuke to US President Donald Trump’s Russia policy, essentially taking a broad swath of foreign policy out of his hands. Continue reading

Putin’s new OPEC role reflects the toll of low oil prices on Russia [IBD quotes me]

I was interviewed by Gillian Rich at Investors Business Daily (Washington, DC) on non-OPEC Russia’s role in the production cut.  The article of December 9, is below. A few points first:

1: President Putin and his minister of energy Alexander Novak‘s participation in the OPEC decision – actually making middle-of-the-night phone calls to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia, plus publicly promising to cut Russian production – is totally unprecedented. Never did the Soviets, nor  post-Soviet Russia  ever do any such thing previously. Why now?

2: As Rich quotes me as saying, oil prices below $60/barrel impose severe constraints on the Russian state’s income. Indeed, the federal budget has actually been based on $50/barrel, and yet the difficulties are apparent. Although Russian oil production is now at a post-Soviet all-time high, low prices have caused the state’s oil and gas income to severely drop. Here is the EIA’s assessment as of October 2016, showing the correlation of Brent price fall (in both dollars and Rubles) on the left, and the decline in oil and gas federal budget revenue on the right:eia_russia_oil_20oct16

But, how much of Russian national export revenue is derived from oil and gas revenue? The EIA (in 2014) puts this at 68%. Here’s the breakdown:  eia_russian_oil_gas_exprot_revenue201300

Nota Bene: Crude oil and products represent 54%, while natural gas is 14% – that is, oil is almost four times as large. This left 32% of Russia’s gross export sales to “other energy and non-energy” items where the energy part includes significant coal, lignite, processed and unprocessed uranium and electricity sales.

Indeed, this is the hallmark of a rentier state, not a modern industrialized, service-sector oriented society, much less a high-tech one (with notable exceptions in weaponry, nuclear energy, and etc.)

3: So, bottom line, what does this mean for the State?  There are two emergency funds intended for use in such circumstances. One will likely be exhausted this year and a second fund, intended for pensions and such, not for replacing budget deficits, is being tapped to replenish foreign reserves. Looking at the state’s foreign reserves graphically, we have this:russia-foreign-exchange-reserves

I have made the time axis here identical to the first EIA graphs, to facilitate comparison. Note, the baseline is not zero, but $350 billion. Russia was known to have had big reserves, but given low oil prices and the US and EU oil-and-finance sanctions over Ukraine, roughly a couple-hundred-billion dollars of reserves were lost, with about $50-billion regained as oil prices rose a bit this past year.

4. The first EIA chart above also shows a big divergence between the dollar and ruble price of Brent crude, reflecting the big devaluation-to-date of the ruble. This indeed helps the economy and the state in various ways; for example, with anything it can pay for at home in rubles.  However, with Russia hot having a significant percentage of its income from manufactured goods or agricultural exports, this low-valued currency does not give the boost it would give to a diversified industrial economy such as Western Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada or the USA.

Lastly, if we listen NOT to predictably pessimistic western analysts, but to the Russian federal finance minister himself, Anton Siluanov (speaking to Bloomberg in January 2016), Siluanov makes clear that  cutting the budget 10% in 2016 would only account for about 1/3 of the needed cuts and that raising cash from privatizations would be necessary along with spending down the aforementioned reserve fund. Indeed, after much shady ado in the Kremlin, which included the arrest of the federal economics minister, Rosneft has indeed privatized part of its state shares, 19.6% of the company, reaping 10.3 billion euros for the state budget. In further years, areas now forbidden to be cut, military and social spending, would have to be considered. You can listen to Siluanov here.

Putin knows very deeply how badly things can go if energy prices, and especially oil prices, remain low (as they likely will). He came to power at a time following the period of dire economic hardship following the crash of 1998 Continue reading

My CNNMoney quote & 3 points: OPEC v shale, Russia’s new role & Trump-buddy Hamm is pro Saudi price band

 

160928163540-opec-algeria-384x216I was interviewed by Matt Egan of CNNMoney. Three points, if I may:

  1. This story echoes my message in Berlin Policy Journal earlier this week and my RTRadio interview: OPEC now has to live with a new oil-market paradigm where shale  won’t disappear (for now its in the US, but soon elsewhere too).  It is a technology more akin to manufacturing than traditional oil extraction and so more amenable to technological and operating innovation in a low-price regime (or in a price war such as the Saudis et al have just given up on waging against it). And, being much smaller-in-scale means it can ramp up at much lower initial costs and more rapidly than traditional oil fields. The CNNMoney story is below here, or here’s the CNN ink .
  2. Another totally new phenomena seen in this OPEC deal was that a Russian leader was deeply involved in the tense OPEC negotiations, specifically between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Russia has never done this before. Historically, it has also never carried through on previous promises to support an OPEC cut, instead free-riding on higher prices effected by OPEC/Saudi cuts.  In this case, Putin was instrumental in getting the Saudi’s to agree, as they always have before, to swallow most of the cuts. But, Putin has agreed to cut too (in ambiguous language, but repeatedly). We shall now see if he and Igor Sechin (CEO of Rosneft, that produces 40% of Russian oil, and who is, by the way, a great friend of Venezuela’s miserably failing chavista leadership, where his company is now the biggest foreign oil producer) … do as they have promised OPEC and the Saudis. If they do not, the fallout with Saudis and their allies will be significant.
  3. Now, also, we shall see how US shale responds. Of course, IEA head, Fatih Birol, has understandably predicted that US shale and other producers, will likely hike production if oil reaches $60/barrel and simply eat up the present OPEC cuts in about nine months or so. (Aside: of course, the present output cuts, even if they ‘fail’ in the long run to sustain higher prices, would still have had been a significant cash-boosting relief to all OPEC states and to Russia while they lasted.)  However, take a look at the Bloomberg video link at the end of my Berlin Policy Journal piece – an interview with Howard Hamm, Trump’s billionaire fracking close-ally (who has just turned down an offer to run the Department of Energy). He had told Bloomberg he expects OPEC to make a deal because “it makes sense” and, further, that he expects/hopes his US fracking colleagues will show ‘discipline’ after the price rise, i.e., not expanding too fast so as to keep prices up.  An interesting, de facto recognition that price wars, in the end (in the long run), do not benefit either side, and goes on to approvingly say that the Saudi’s want to once again maintain prices “in a band” as they used to do. It is clear from Hamm that this would all be very welcomed from the US side. (Note, Hamm’s Continental Energy company made $3 billion in just three hours after the OPEC deal boosted prices! ) Indeed, in light of such everlasting market realities, it is difficult to imagine Trump’s attitude to the Saudi’s will be much different than other US president’s over the years. Which has geopolitical implications for Iran, of course, as the Saudi-Iranian geopolitical competition for regional influence and their parallel oil-market competition both continue to heat up.

Here’s the CNNMoney piece by M. Egan of 1 December 2016 (with my quote highlighted): Continue reading

An Oil-Price War´s Surprise Ending -My BPJ article on OPEC, Shale, Trump, Market & Geopolitics

bpj-oil-price-war-end-29nov16Here`s my latest at Berlin Policy Journal:  about  OPEC`s 30 Novermber meeting, US shale and the geopolitics from the  Trump Administration towards Iran and the Saudis. – Tom O`D.

An Oil-Price War’s Surprise Ending

No one expected shale producers to survive extended low oil prices.
, NOVEMBER 29, 2016 
The oil market’s oversupply – and the low prices that followed – was supposed to drive shale producers out of business. Instead, the economies of several large national producers have been upended, and the next act could prove even more destabilizing.

OPEC’s 171st meeting in Vienna on November 30 reflects the new paradigm of the global oil market. After two years, the Saudi-led price war to drive American shale and other “high cost” producers from the market has ended. However, to the surprise of many – not least the Saudis – shale has survived. What now?

The United States Energy Information Agency (EIA) expects persistent market oversupply to have been quenched by the second half of 2017. The Saudis view the diminishing oversupply as an opportunity to cut production by 600,000 or more barrels per day – although about twice this amount would be optimal – boosting prices from under $50 per barrel to $60 or more. The Saudis have worked intensely to reach an agreement at the OPEC summit to coordinate this production cut with Russia; any failure to achieve this highly anticipated deal would sink market confidence, pushing prices into the $30s.

The key obstacle to the Saudi plan is that Iran has refused to participate in any cut, insisting it should first be allowed to re-establish production it lost under years of sanctions. In response, the Saudis have threatened to boost their own production, punishing Iran by collapsing prices and by denying them market share. The Financial Times’ Nick Butler correctly characterizes this as “playing with fire,” and not only because of the severe pain this would impose on weaker OPEC states, but also for the geopolitical retaliation it might provoke from the new US administration as the Saudis would also bankrupt numerous shale producers in the US.

However, even if Russia, Iran, and the rest of OPEC agree to the Saudis’ cuts, US shale is widely expected to expand into the void, re-depressing prices by later next year. In all these scenarios, the future remains extremely difficult for OPEC, for Russia, and for other oil-dependent states.

A Price War Backfires

The prolonged high price of oil, starting to rise in 2002 and then dipping during the financial crisis before rising again till mid-2014, encouraged the emergence of new unconventional shale production. Driven by technical innovations in hydraulic fracturing plus abundant venture capital, by 2014 the US had added more new oil to the global market than what was lost in the Arab Spring and subsequent wars in Libya, Iraq, and Syria. By mid-2014, some two million excess barrels-per-day (bpd) were flowing into storage, and the price collapsed. Continue reading

Saudi & Russia seek oil deal as OPEC fight v US shale fails [My RTRadio Interview]

economonitor-com-putin_and_prince_g20_sept16

RT Radio-Edinburgh’s Jack Foster interviewed me on the upcoming 30 November OPEC summit where the Saudis hope to set a cap on OPEC and Russian production. Here’s the interview:   Listen from time-stamp 9:00-to-17:30 (Streaming MP3) 

This would  mark the first-ever Russian cooperation with OPEC. However, market realities look bleak for OPEC and Russia whether they reach an agreement or not. The reason is the unprecedented continuing challenge from US shale, which has dramatically cut its costs via tech and operational innovations to stay profitable at low prices. Continue reading

Pipe Dream? Polish ruling complicates Nord Stream 2 pipeline for Gazprom & EU partners [My Berlin Policy Journal piece]

bpj_online_odonnell_nordstream2_cutHere’s my latest analysis in Berlin Policy Journal (German Council on Foreign Relations -DGAP).Pipe Dream? The Nord Stream 2 pipeline project is in danger of being derailed.
THOMAS W. O’DONNELL , SEPTEMBER 22, 2016 

A pipeline project to double Gazprom’s export capacity to Europe has always been controversial. A recent ruling by Poland’s competition authority could seriously undercut the support it has accrued, leaving its European backers at odds.

The proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline project has bitterly pitted European states that back the project, including Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and France, against project opponents, including Ukraine, Poland, and other former Soviet-bloc states. The project aims to double the capacity of the existing huge, 55-billion-cubic-meter-per-year Nord Stream 1 pipeline, running in parallel to it under the Baltic Sea from near St. Petersburg in Russia directly to Greifswald in Germany.

This dispute has exposed two very different views of Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas-export monopoly, and of Vladimir Putin’s Russia itself – one side sees it as a “necessary” and “reliable” energy supplier, the other a dangerous and manipulative adversary. This dispute is but one more collision inflicting lasting harm on the European Project.

Polish competition authority rejects project

The latest row involves a ruling in late July by the Polish Office of Competition and Consumer Protection (Urzed Ochrony Konkurencji i Konsumentow, or UOKiK) rejecting an application by five private western European energy firms proposing to partner with Gazprom to build and operate Nord Stream 2. The firms are Germany’s E.ON (soon to be Uniper) and Wintershall, Austria’s OMV, Anglo-Dutch Shell, and France’s Engie.

Shortly before the Polish announcement, the five companies agreed to withdraw their association proposal to avoid UOKiK initiating a legal process against them. The commission’s president, Marek Niechcial, declared categorically on August 12 that the Polish rejection was definitive, asserting “This will stop the [Nord Stream 2] deal.” The five firms have nevertheless made it clear they are seeking a strategy to work around the decision, and expect to proceed as planned. Gazprom has said the same.

So why go through this proceeding in the first place? To understand these events better, I spoke with several experts and diplomats working on these matters in Moscow, Berlin, Washington, Paris, and Warsaw.

Commercial Arguments

An often-heard line of argument is that at least some of the five companies might actually have little commercial interest in the project, but need to preserve their relationships in Russia where they have large investments in energy projects. After all, the Kremlin has a track record of taking over projects from foreign partners with whom it has fallen out. A further theme in this vein is that Nord Stream 2 is not really needed in northwestern Europe, even though the Groningen field in the Netherlands and Norway’s reserves in the North Sea are declining, because future demand in northwestern Europe is overestimated and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) will be available from the United States. This view led to press speculation that the five firms likely welcomed the Polish decision, allowing them a graceful exit.

However, virtually all the experts I spoke with had no doubt Nord Stream 2 would be a lucrative commercial enterprise over the long run, and that the five firms seem genuinely enthusiastic. Continue reading