Western powers have come to despise what they see as Russia's heavy-handed form of capitalism, as in the case of mining rights to the Arctic sea floor, which is believed to hold vast oil reserves. According to Moscow, under the newly operating United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, more than 50 percent of those submerged resources belong to Russia. This assertion has compelled other powers -- such as Denmark, Norway, Canada and Iceland -- to stake their own claims to some of the same underwater territories. The controversy is leading to an increased militarization of the Arctic, with Russian battleships often confronting the vessels of oil developers and Western navies.
"Putin has decided to make a huge energy superpower out of Russia and there's almost nothing that can stop him," says Robert Hueber, an analyst at the Center for Security and International Studies. "Unless something slows him down, there's no way for the West to prevent him from putting his hands on some of the most prized resources of the planet."
Although China's higher profile in Africa is providing cause for concern to the United States and its allies, it is Russia that generates their strongest reactions. They believe Russia is using its energy clout for geopolitical gains, especially in the regions that were once under the Soviet control but are now independent countries.
Western powers have been vehemently denouncing Russia for last year's rows with Ukraine and Belarus over the price of gas. Russia temporarily shut down its gas and oil shipments to these countries as a result of the quarrel. The action in turn caused great worry and anger in Western Europe, which imports respectively 30 percent of its oil and 40 percent of its gas from Russia.
In some countries like Poland, Finland and Slovakia, imports account for more than 70 percent of consumption, and in Hungary the percentage soars above 89 percent. Reacting to the shutdown, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel said Russia had lost its credibility as an energy partner.
Western analysts have also accused Moscow of conspiring to turn the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- an intergovernmental body composed of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with India, Pakistan and Iran as invited observers, meant to foster good neighborly relations and deal with issues of Central Asian security -- into a sort of "OPEC with nuclear weapons," as described by Simon Sweeney, director of the International Studies Program of York St. John University College in the United Kingdom.
Not all analysts, however, are convinced that Russia wants to wage a New Cold War with the West and in particular with the United States.
"Someone is still fighting the Cold War, but it isn't Russia," Mark Almond, a professor of modern history at Oriel College, Oxford, wrote in The Guardian. "The chill is still coming from the West."
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a devout pro-West observer, agrees. Should Moscow, he writes, really decide to leverage its energy resources to subjugate the international community, it would have other, sharper arrows in its quiver.
Russia could, as many of its hardliners have suggested, ban products from Moldova and Georgia or block the transit of their unemployed jobseekers to Russia, thus causing these countries' economic collapse. Moscow could also destabilize Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Kazakhstan and then agree to annex -- as these populations have requested -- their pro-Russian minorities living near the borders of the old Motherland.
In the case of Georgia and Kazakhstan, destabilization could be extremely hard on the United States and its Western allies, as it would totally compromise direct access to the immense oil resources of the Caspian region -- on which the West is greatly reliant -- and their transfer to Western ports.
Thus, for now, and short of an all-out confrontation with the Old Bear, the Western powers can only lash out at the feared expansionism of the New Oil Czar by accusing Moscow of renewed charges of murderous plots and dark conspiracies.
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Albion Monitor February
14, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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