by Austin Bay
July 10, 2002series of "re-defining" moments. The quiet arrival of the oil tanker "Astro
Lupus" at the Port of Houston --with 2 million barrels of Russian oil for
American refineries -- didn't attract the headlines of a summit or
anti-ballistic missile treaty snarl, but the strategic shifts this first
direct shipment of Russian crude symbolizes loom large in the 21st century.
Those redefining moments began in 1985, when the still-Soviets
quit carping about U.S. Pershing IIs (the left-wing cause celebre of 1983).
Moscow returned to the European theater-missile talks and began to seriously
discuss removing their 200 multiple-warhead SS-20 missiles from Eastern
The big redefinition occurred on Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin
Wall cracked, East and West Germans shook hands, and Russian soldiers
sheathed their bayonets. Mikhail Gorbachev mused upon our "common European
Russia's entrance into that home, however, has been fraught with
violence and mafiya corruption that in the 1990s often erased even the
veneer of emerging democracy and free markets. The despotic legacy of czars
and Marxism simply devastated the country, economically, ecologically and
Russia still faces a long march on a hard road. The dissolution
of the Soviet empire drew new borders and reawakened "old troubles" to the
south among the "Muslim" ex-Soviet republics. Small wars flared, with
Chechnya being the ugliest.
Which leads to America's great strategic misperception. The
United States saw Chechnya as merely a war of Soviet devolution. It
dismissed Russian charges that Islamic fundamentalists (with a larger
agenda) inflamed Chechen troubles.
Which makes 9-11 another redefining moment. Where U.S. policy
consisted of encouraging democratic change in Russia while "containing"
Russian anarchy (including accounting for Russian nuclear weapons), 9-11
made it clear to everyone that Moscow can positively contribute to the West.
Sound strategic partnerships require confidence and reciprocation. If
alliances are one-way streets, they lead to dead ends.
Enter the "Astro Lupus." The first thought for many Americans is
Russian oil stuffs the petro-sheiks. Not quite -- or at least, not yet.
Saudi Arabia has one-quarter of Earth's oil reserves. In April, the Saudis
quietly threatened the United States with a two-month oil cut-off is
Washington failed to moderate support for Israel. Perhaps that was symbolic
speech, directed at a Saudi domestic audience. Still, it was a reminder of
potent economic power.
But symbols matter. "This first shipment of Russian oil is a
symbolic thing," advised Dr. Michelle Foss, director of University of
Houston's Institute for Energy Law and Enterprise. "We're not going to see
fleets of Russian tankers arriving in the U.S. That's not how Russian oil's
going to come in the marketplace."
Russian oil will go where transport costs make sense, which
means Europe or perhaps Asia by pipeline. (Supertankers just can't safely
risk snaking through the Bosporous.) "But the presence of Russian oil
neutralizes world oil markets at bit," Foss added, "and counters Persian
Gulf influence and vagaries. More barrels in the marketplace make it a more
Here's what else the tanker symbolizes:
- The promise of honest money in Russian pockets. Entering the
global oil business will also force positive changes in Russian business
practices. (Don't snicker. Global Crossing and Enron got caught. Real
competition penalizes corruption and "no (real) wealth without character."
There are sound foreign policy reasons for Ken Lay and Marc Rich to do jail
- Stabilization along Russia's southern periphery. A long-haul
project? Sure, but the Caucasus and Caspian basin have something the world
needs. Building pipelines provides jobs and creates connections.
- New Russian confidence. The czars styled themselves as
defenders of Christendom. Russia now has the chance to demonstrate to the
West and itself it can be a reliable partner, contributing to European
economic stability and collective defense. That's one reason U.S. abrogation
of the archaic ABM Treaty caused no brouhaha in Moscow. Saddam's SCUDs
demonstrated missile defense is part of collective defense, and Moscow knows
it. (Too bad American leftists don't.)
There's one other point the tanker's arrival makes. The American
left loves to hammer on oil companies as guys in black hats. The truth is
much more nuanced and complex. American oil companies are the front line for
economic change in Russia. Here's an explicit case where the energy
industry's profit motive aligns well with national security, to include
developing alternative supplies outside the Persian Gulf.