by Austin Bay
July 10, 2002
Since 1985, the U.S.-Russian relationship has experienced aseries of "re-defining" moments. The quiet arrival of the oil tanker "AstroLupus" at the Port of Houston --with 2 million barrels of Russian oil forAmerican refineries -- didn't attract the headlines of a summit oranti-ballistic missile treaty snarl, but the strategic shifts this firstdirect shipment of Russian crude symbolizes loom large in the 21st century.
Those redefining moments began in 1985, when the still-Sovietsquit carping about U.S. Pershing IIs (the left-wing cause celebre of 1983).Moscow returned to the European theater-missile talks and began to seriouslydiscuss removing their 200 multiple-warhead SS-20 missiles from EasternEurope.
The big redefinition occurred on Nov. 9, 1989, when the BerlinWall cracked, East and West Germans shook hands, and Russian soldierssheathed their bayonets. Mikhail Gorbachev mused upon our "common Europeanhome."
Russia's entrance into that home, however, has been fraught withviolence and mafiya corruption that in the 1990s often erased even theveneer of emerging democracy and free markets. The despotic legacy of czarsand Marxism simply devastated the country, economically, ecologically andpsychologically.
Russia still faces a long march on a hard road. The dissolutionof the Soviet empire drew new borders and reawakened "old troubles" to thesouth among the "Muslim" ex-Soviet republics. Small wars flared, withChechnya being the ugliest.
Which leads to America's great strategic misperception. TheUnited States saw Chechnya as merely a war of Soviet devolution. Itdismissed Russian charges that Islamic fundamentalists (with a largeragenda) inflamed Chechen troubles.
Which makes 9-11 another redefining moment. Where U.S. policyconsisted of encouraging democratic change in Russia while "containing"Russian anarchy (including accounting for Russian nuclear weapons), 9-11made it clear to everyone that Moscow can positively contribute to the West.Sound strategic partnerships require confidence and reciprocation. Ifalliances are one-way streets, they lead to dead ends.
Enter the "Astro Lupus." The first thought for many Americans isRussian 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 Saudisquietly threatened the United States with a two-month oil cut-off isWashington failed to moderate support for Israel. Perhaps that was symbolicspeech, directed at a Saudi domestic audience. Still, it was a reminder ofpotent economic power.
But symbols matter. "This first shipment of Russian oil is asymbolic thing," advised Dr. Michelle Foss, director of University ofHouston's Institute for Energy Law and Enterprise. "We're not going to seefleets of Russian tankers arriving in the U.S. That's not how Russian oil'sgoing to come in the marketplace."
Russian oil will go where transport costs make sense, whichmeans Europe or perhaps Asia by pipeline. (Supertankers just can't safelyrisk snaking through the Bosporous.) "But the presence of Russian oilneutralizes world oil markets at bit," Foss added, "and counters PersianGulf influence and vagaries. More barrels in the marketplace make it a moresecure commodity."
Here's what else the tanker symbolizes:
- The promise of honest money in Russian pockets. Entering theglobal oil business will also force positive changes in Russian businesspractices. (Don't snicker. Global Crossing and Enron got caught. Realcompetition penalizes corruption and "no (real) wealth without character."There are sound foreign policy reasons for Ken Lay and Marc Rich to do jailtime.)
- Stabilization along Russia's southern periphery. A long-haulproject? Sure, but the Caucasus and Caspian basin have something the worldneeds. Building pipelines provides jobs and creates connections.
- New Russian confidence. The czars styled themselves asdefenders of Christendom. Russia now has the chance to demonstrate to theWest and itself it can be a reliable partner, contributing to Europeaneconomic stability and collective defense. That's one reason U.S. abrogationof the archaic ABM Treaty caused no brouhaha in Moscow. Saddam's SCUDsdemonstrated missile defense is part of collective defense, and Moscow knowsit. (Too bad American leftists don't.)
There's one other point the tanker's arrival makes. The Americanleft loves to hammer on oil companies as guys in black hats. The truth ismuch more nuanced and complex. American oil companies are the front line foreconomic change in Russia. Here's an explicit case where the energyindustry's profit motive aligns well with national security, to includedeveloping alternative supplies outside the Persian Gulf.