By Angad Vijaya Raghavan
As turmoil over Crimea and the subsequent diplomatic hullaballoo reaches a position of acknowledged impasse, questions are being asked about what options are left for both Russia and the EU. It appears that both parties are wary of doing anything too drastic and for obvious reasons – they all have too much to lose.
Further military escalation is out of the question, and Vladimir Putin would surely not take the risk of stalling gas supplies to the rest of Europe. The stability of the Russian economy is heavily dependent on gas exports, and risking their multi-billion dollar contracts with numerous western oil companies would damage Russia’s reputation too much. For now, Shell, BP et al. will continue their business arrangements, albeit in a slightly speculative market. Having these oil behemoths (and their army of political lobbyists) on their side should help Russia keep any trade sanctions to a minimum.
Amidst all this, there is one major question that the anti-Russia bloc needs to ponder upon – does Vladimir Putin conceal any significant aces up his sleeve, and how might they affect future policies?
As far as the first query is concerned, Russia holds two strong trump cards in any diplomatic showdown. Firstly, the EU seems to have given them all the time in the world. Their recent declaration that any policy change on matters of energy will take three months at a minimum, would have elicited a few smirks of derision in Moscow. Three months is more than enough time for Russia and its allies to rethink their strategies and figure out an alternative to the worst of scenarios. These are countries that are heavily invested in multiple sectors in the Russian economy and will go the extra mile to protect their assets. In fact, you could count on Putin to play the waiting game and watch as the Eastern Ukraine economy slowly but surely grinds to a halt and tries to come to terms with a possible IMF-backed bailout. Also working in their favour is the number of friends in high places that currently promote the Russian cause – as experts on world-affairs and geopolitics. These are individuals on the take, and very frankly, you cannot blame them. This is the world we live in today, and paid opinion, though stretching the boundaries of ethicality, is not illegal. At the end of the day, when push comes to shove, Russia has enough influential backers who will swoop to their rescue.
The second factor working in Russia’s favour is diversification. Say, hypothetically speaking, if the EU went ahead with tough sanctions and ensured that in a couple of years’ time, it drastically reduced the dependence on Russian oil and gas. Vladimir Putin knows that there are a number of countries, especially the developing ones, who need a share of the vast resources that Russia houses. The other members of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), members of the N-11 (Pakistan, Vietnam, South Korea, the Philippines et al.) will need increasingly more natural resources as they continue to grow and expand. Russia can offer them this support and more, provided the cards are dealt right. The only obstacle is the country’s reticence – for too long it has idly depended on the income from the EU front. Any change may entail a major upheaval at Gazprom and Lukoil, which will need to be re-established as major international companies. If Putin is ready to test the waters outside his immediate comfort zone, Russia could stand to benefit enormously in the long-run, sanctions or otherwise.
Vladimir Putin is a man with lofty ambitions, and he will surely want to be remembered as a more than just a macho, shirtless, former super-spy who led Russia through two decades of passive aggression. If his legacy should be the diversification of the Russian export market, moving away from the traditional comfort-zone closer home, and truly essaying a paradigm shift in Russia’s economic compass, then so be it.
Angad Vijaya Raghavan is currently pursuing his undergraduate studies at BITS Pilani, Pilani Campus. While he remains quite proud of the couple of degrees he’ll mostly receive in a year or so, his real interests lie in the murky world of financial markets and analysis. His long-term plans include philanthropy and the like, but realises that any more procrastination might lead to him being the recipient – rather than the source – of society’s generosity chain.