H-Diplo|ISSF Essay 458
4 November 2022
Commentary Series on Putin’s War: “Energy and Putin’s War.”
Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: Christopher Ball
A full accounting of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine and Russia’s conflict with the broader West is impossible without reckoning with oil and energy politics. Certainly, no explanation would be complete without Ukrainian history, the expansion of NATO, leader psychology, Putin’s fear of a successful neighboring democracy, Russia’s desire for great power status, Europe’s mostly fruitless search for shared military power, Russia’s financial war chest, the United States’ embrace of sanctions, the West’s difficulties in understanding Russia’s world view, nuclear coercion, dictators’ propensity for war and battlefield difficulties, and a good many other things.
Yet, if we are looking to understand the why and the how of the conflict between Russia and the West, we cannot ignore energy politics. I have been writing for more than a decade about the many links between oil and war. In the 2022 conflict, natural gas is at least as important as oil, and all of the different major energy sources have a story to tell, including coal, nuclear, and renewable energy. I focus the first half of this essay on that subject. Just as importantly, the energy dimensions of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict can teach us something about international order more broadly, with implications far beyond this particular conflict. The second half of my essay is devoted to those lessons.
In what is now a sadly familiar pattern to those who study resource politics, oil and gas money helped Putin consolidate power within Russia, build a war machine, and enjoy a relatively free hand with which to instigate multiple foreign policy conflicts. In 2021, before the war, oil and gas accounted for approximately 20 percent of Russia’s GDP, 40 percent of government revenues, and roughly half of total exports. Like Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein and others before him, Putin seized control of a gusher of petroleum money and bent it to his political purposes. This was especially true of Putin’s first decade in office, 1999-2009, when he benefited from a dramatic increase in world oil prices, giving him the appearance of a good economic leader.
In my 2013 book Petro-Aggression, I described how oil contributed to the tendency of some petrostates to engage in military conflict and foreign aggression. Previous work had focused on petrostates as targets of resource wars, but my research showed that petrostates are more typically the instigators of international conflicts. Oil income amplifies the propensity of aggressive leaders for international conflict by consolidating their domestic power and reducing the probability that they are punished politically if the war goes badly. To test the argument, some way of identifying aggressive leaders is needed that is independent of the dependent variable, namely their tendency to get into conflict. Empirically, I used revolutionary leaders as a proxy for aggressive leaders to test the core hypothesis of petro-aggression. The proxy was always imperfect, however, and clearly some aggressive leaders are not revolutionary.
Although Vladimir Putin was not the leader of a domestic revolution (by my assessment, at least), he does appear to have strongly aggressive preferences in foreign policy, as indicated by his statements and behavior prior to coming to office. Thus, Russia’s oil wealth, Putin’s preferences, his ability to consolidate power domestically, and Russia’s subsequent conflicts all fit with the argument of Petro-Aggression.
Some might argue that the oil and gas resources in the Donbas region contributed to the incentive for Russia to invade Ukraine. After all, the Dnipro-Donetsk basin accounted for 90 percent of Ukrainian oil and gas production prior to the war. It would be quite a prize if Russia could eventually exploit the region’s natural resources because of the war. Yet, it seems unlikely that this prize was a major cause of the war. In the counterfactual world, in which there was no oil or gas in the Donbas at all, it seems possible and even likely that Putin would have attacked anyway, based on his vision of a grand sphere of influence for Russia and Ukraine’s position within it. Moreover, as Emily Meierding has shown in some detail, the costs associated with conquering, controlling, and exploiting oil fields are often higher than the benefits. While Russia and Ukraine have a long history of energy disputes, conquering for oil and gas does not appear to be a principal motivation for the war.
Instead, Russia is using energy politics in at least three other ways. First, it is restricting energy exports to the European Union. Prior to the conflict the EU and its neighbors, like the United Kingdom and Switzerland, relied on Russia for about 40 percent of their natural gas consumption, and they cannot easily find substitutes for that volume. Second, Russia is working with Saudi Arabia and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to try to keep the world price of oil high. OPEC’s ability to cooperate is highly limited, but its key member, Saudi Arabia has meaningful market power. Third, Russia is attacking Ukraine’s own energy systems, especially its electricity generation, which includes nuclear power. The strain on Ukraine’s electricity grid creates ripple effects on Europe’s system as well, to a certain extent. A potential fourth energy front is the apparent sabotage, and threat of sabotage, of various parts of Europe’s energy-related infrastructure, including the Nord Stream pipelines. Russia’s involvement in these attacks has not been conclusively determined but would be consistent with the deniable, “grey zone” tactics that characterized Russian aggression prior to its overt invasion.
If petro-aggression relates to the why of the Russia-Ukraine war, these three (or four) theaters of energy conflict help us understand the how. Russia’s strategy is evidently larger than a simple territorial battle in Ukraine, but rather encompasses a broad political-economic confrontation with Europe, the United States, and their allies. Putin had every reason to anticipate Western economic sanctions as a reaction to the territorial attack, even if neither he nor anyone else could be sure of exactly how strong the sanction response would be (and many were surprised by some of the measures Germany, Switzerland, and others agreed to take). Russia’s effort to strangle Europe’s energy supplies, especially in natural gas, can be seen as a coercive countermeasure. Its effectiveness remains to be seen.
More fundamentally, this multi-front war that combines territorial and energy conflict offers a lesson about the deep nature of international order. In Partial Hegemony, I argue that there is no such thing as a single, monolithic international order, consistent across various issue areas like trade, finance, and territorial sovereignty. Instead, international order is made up of many overlapping subsystems, which I define as a collection of states and non-state actors linked by a single question of governance within a substantive issue area. International order consists of the governing arrangements within these subsystems. Rather than moments of “order” punctuated by key moments of “change” after big wars, as thinkers like Robert Gilpin or John Ikenberry suggest, I see governing arrangements changing in some subsystems while others remain relatively constant at any given moment.
The 1970s illustrate the analytic value of this subsystems approach. On one level, the 1973 oil crisis represented a huge shock to international order. It was the precipitating event for the largest peaceful transfer of wealth across borders in all of human history, from oil consumers to oil producers. The United States actively opposed this change but ultimately had to accept the new structure of global oil. So, there was massive change in one subsystem, which focused on the question of how much oil to produce around the world. Most IR scholars then concluded that this change was due to declining U.S. hegemony.
Yet, on another level, the 1970s represented a continuation of a long-standing pattern of military dominance by the Anglo-American powers over the Persian Gulf. True, the United Kingdom withdrew militarily in the early 1970s, but the United States stepped in to compensate, and then some. The United States maintained its long-standing defense arrangements with Saudi Arabia dating back to 1945 and, with the 1980 Carter Doctrine, deepened its commitment over the whole Persian Gulf area. Far from a declining hegemon, the United States seemed by the time of the 1990-91 Gulf War as a very active (and perhaps heavy-handed) hegemon indeed. A key motivation for the ongoing Anglo-American defense of small petrostates was to ensure that there would be no monopolist of global oil markets.
Thus, two quite distinct subsystems characterize oil politics, then and now: one focused on production (where oil companies and OPEC are key players), and one focused on territorial sovereignty and military defense (where state actors are key players, especially the United States). If we treat international order over oil as a single, monolithic thing, we are blind to the very real heterogeneity in the pace and direction of change over time. In the 1970s, the governing arrangements over global oil production changed sharply, while the security arrangements largely persisted. Moreover, when change in international order occurred, it happened against the wishes of the leading great power.
Russia’s 2022 war in Ukraine sheds new light on how subsystems interact, especially those involving energy politics and territorial security. One of the central messages of Partial Hegemony is that international order in various subsystems might have a theme that runs across them, but that theme is inconsistent and applies to a different extent in different subsystems. The ‘liberal’ international order, for instance, is only quite unevenly liberal. I stand by this point, but the war in Ukraine has compelled me to think more deeply about how the intensity of great power competition, which varies over time, affects the degree to which subsystems align with a consistent theme.
Imagine great power politics as a magnetic field that acts on the direction of the governing arrangements in each subsystem. It helps orient them in a similar direction, creating semi-consistent themes within each great power’s sphere of influence. That magnetic field can be weak or strong over time, varying with the intensity of great power rivalry. So great power politics matter a lot for international order, as traditional theories suggest. But there are three points on which my subsystems theory diverges from most structural theories. First, even when great power rivalry at the systemic level is intense, that does not mean there is intense rivalry and non-cooperation in each subsystem. For instance, in the 1950s, during a time of intense hostility between the US and the USSR over nuclear technology, the two superpowers came together to create the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in order to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation and followed up a decade later with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Second, even when the effect of great power politics is strong, it still does not determine everything, and not even everything that is important, as the 1970s showed. And third, most crucially, great power rivalry is a variable. There are times, sometimes decades, when great power rivalry is relatively weak, which creates openings for the governing arrangements in some subsystems to depart dramatically from the logic of great power competition.
For those tempted to think that less intense great power competition might lead to better decisions and outcomes, the growth of Europe’s dependence on Russian energy imports offers a cautionary tale. In the 1980s and 1990s, Europe began to take advantage of a reduction in Cold War hostilities to allow the construction of oil and gas pipelines from Russia, despite warnings from the United States government that this could lead to trouble. Continuing until 2022, the apotheosis of this commercial approach was the strong German support for the pipelines Nord Stream 1 and 2, designed to carry natural gas directly from Russia to Germany while bypassing transit countries like Ukraine. The construction of these many pipelines over a period of more than four decades set the stage for Europe’s energy vulnerability in 2022. In my theoretical terms, we could say that the energy and security subsystems had governing arrangements that were market-based and largely independent of each other until 2022, when renewed great power rivalry rapidly aligned the subsystems according to the dictates of geopolitics.
In sum, energy politics play a crucial role in the Ukraine war and the broader conflict between Russia and the West. Russia’s conflict is a multi-front war that combines territorial and energy disputes. Many scholars of security studies are prone to treat it only as a military conflict, which is a mistake. Understanding energy’s role in this specific conflict might teach us something more general about the multifaceted nature of international order.
Jeff D. Colgan is the Richard Holbrooke Associate Professor of Political Science at Brown University and Director of the Climate Solutions Lab at the Watson Institute of Public and International Affairs. His research focuses on international order, especially as it relates to energy and the environment, and recently published Partial Hegemony: Oil Politics and International Order (Oxford University Press, 2021).
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 I credit Thijs van de Graaf with clearly identifying these three ways (via Twitter).
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 This was true even of Robert Keohane’s masterwork After Hegemony, which was the standard bearer for a critique on hegemonic stability theory. Robert O. Keohane, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton University Press, 1984).
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