It has been a big week for Russia. It expanded agreements with China for energy supply deliveries, rebuked the US on Iran sanctions, and Josef Stalin’s grandson lost a libel case against the Novaya Gazeta.
To give an idea of the geographical layout of Russian pipelines, I highly recommend all readers check this link at the EIA.
In particular I am going to look at Russia turning eastward towards China. This is not the first time Russia has tried to connect with more eastern markets than its more traditional European focus. A pipeline has long been planned to extend to the Pacific Ocean (near Vladivostok) which would then allow tankers to reach Japan, China, and potentially North American markets. Simultaneously, pipelines are being extended farther west, bypassing the former Soviet Bloc countries, and into Germany, primarily via the Nord Stream pipeline (I will write a future entry on the Nord Stream pipeline, as I am intimately familiar with the topic, and its an interesting study).
Distance difficulties aside, China makes a natural energy market for Russian gas exports. Many attempts have been made to build a pipeline from the Caspian Sea fields and pipelines eastward, and to date none have proven feasible. The political difficulties in western China (the recent flare-up in the conflict with the Uighurs is a key example) also make me believe this option is unfeasible for the Chinese government in any case. A spur south from Russia bypasses this difficulty. Increasing need for energy supplies also makes China a logical partner for Russia, rather than shipping gas west through congested pipelines. As climate commitments and the need for cleaner air will eventually reduce Chinese use of coal-fired plants in exchange for natural gas-fired plants, they will need Russian natural gas. It also provides a level of finanical security for Russia, which is highly dependent on natural gas revenues for its operations.
Purchaser diversity is important for Russia, for Russian security, and for international security. At the same time, these pipeline expansions, which pass entirely through Russian or international territory/waters until they reach the receiving country, help strengthen Russia’s grasp on the former Soviet Bloc countries in the west. Spats between the Ukraine and Russia have led to stopping deliveries which have impacted Europe. By bypassing these countries (and expanding its base) the impacts on Russia are lessened. However, I feel that Russian image concerns might be lessened by becoming a global energy power. Rather than turning towards armaments, this might assuage the Russian psyche. Imagine the US in the same place: we wouldn’t like going from a superpower to a power, and could gain prestige again in a variety of ways. Energy production is one way to do this.
In sum, these are interesting developments that will need to be watched to see what actually happens. I believe it will end up being a stabilizing influence, for the most part, but urge caution with regards to Russian actions in the west, as unlinking supplies from the pipeline networks in the west will weaken European influence over Russia.