What is behind the Russia/Ukraine problem? It seems to me that what we are seeing is Russia’s attempt to fix a two-part problem:
- Some oil and gas exporters, including Russia, are not receiving enough oil and gas revenue to meet their needs. They are not able to collect enough taxes to provide the services they have promised to their citizens, plus allow the amount of reinvestment that is needed to maintain production. Russia is starting to experience economic contraction because of the low revenue situation. This situation very closely related similar problems I have written about previously. In one post I talked about major independent oil companies not producing enough profit to provide the revenue needed for reinvestment, and because of this, cutting back on new investment. In another, I talked about the problem of too low US natural gas sales prices, relative to the cost of extraction.
- Some oil and gas importers, including Ukraine, are not using their imported oil and gas in productive enough ways that they are able to afford to pay the market price for oil and gas. Russia gave Ukraine a lower natural gas price because some of Russia’s pipelines cross Ukraine, and Ukraine must maintain the pipeline. But even with this lower natural gas price, Ukraine is behind on its payments to Russia.
If a person thinks about the situation, it looks a lot like a situation where the world is reaching limits on oil and gas production. The marginal producers (including Russia) are being pushed out, at the same time that the marginal consumers (including Ukraine) are being pushed out.
Russia is trying to fix this situation, as best it can. One part of its approach is to make certain that Ukraine will in fact pay at least the European market price for natural gas. To do this, Russia will make Ukraine prepay for its natural gas; otherwise it will cut off its gas supply. Russia is also looking for new customers who can afford to pay higher prices for natural gas. In particular, Russia is working on a contract to sell LNG to China, quite possibly reducing the amount of natural gas it has available to sell to Europe. Russia is also signing a $10 billion contract with Iran in which it promises to construct new hydroelectric and thermal energy plants in Iran, in return for oil exports from Iran. This contract will increase the amount of oil Russia has to sell, and will increase the oil available on the world market. Russia’s plan will do an end run around US and European sanctions.
Gradually, or perhaps not so gradually, Russia’s exports are being redirected to those who can afford to pay higher prices. European Union purchases of natural gas imports have declined since 2008, presumably because they are having difficulty affording the current price of gas, so they are being relied on less for future sales.
The Russian approach seems to include building a new axis of power, including Russia, China, Iran and perhaps other countries. This new axis of power may threaten the US dollar’s reserve currency status. With the dollar as reserve currency, the US has been able to buy far more goods from other countries than it sells to others. Putting an end to the US dollar as reserve currency would leave more and oil and gas for other countries. If purchases by the US are cut back, it will leave more oil and gas for other countries. The danger is that prices will drop too low because of the drop in US demand, leading to lower production. It this should happen, everyone might lose out.
I am doubtful that Russia’s approach to fixing its problems will work. But if Russia is “between a rock and a hard place,” I can understand its willingness to try something very different. It now has more power than it has had in the past because of its oil and gas exports, and is willing to use that power.
The US/European approach to this problem is to loan Ukraine $17 billion to pay for past natural gas bills. The hope is that with this loan, Ukraine will be able to make changes that will allow it to afford future natural gas bills. There is also the hope that the United States can step in with large natural gas exports to Europe and Ukraine. In addition, the US and Europe are trying to impose sanctions on Russia.
I find it very difficult to believe that the US/European approach will work. The idea that the United States can start exporting huge amounts of natural gas to Europe in the near future borders on the bizarre. There are many hurdles that would need to be overcome for this to happen. Installing LNG export facilities is among the least of these hurdles.
In fact, the West badly needs both the oil and gas that Russia is producing, so it really is in a very precarious position. If Russia cuts off exports, or if Russia is forced to cut off exports because of financial difficulties, both the US and Europe will suffer. It is clear that Europe will suffer because of its dependence on pipeline exports of oil and gas from Russia. But the US will suffer as well, because the US is tied closely to Europe by financial ties, and by import and export arrangements with Europe.
Furthermore, the US/European approach involves a great deal of new debt, in an attempt to fix an inherent inability of the Ukrainian economy to afford high energy prices. Without a huge transformation, Ukraine will be in even more financial difficulty when it comes time to pay back the new debt–it will need make debt payments at the same time that it needs to pay for more expensive future natural gas. More debt doesn’t necessarily fix the situation; it may make it worse.
The US powers that be do not understand what Russia (and the world) is up against, so the policies they propose are likely to make the situation worse, rather than better.