Managing the Challenge of Russian Energy Policies
December 1, 2010
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the leaders of Russia, including then-President Boris Yeltsin, searched for new methods of continuing to exert influence over the former Soviet-controlled region. The Kremlin at first used an energy blockade to the Baltic States in 1990 in an attempt to prevent their breakaway from the Soviet Union. After that failed, it then focused on the growing opposition in the former republics of the Soviet Union and in East Central Europe to its foreign and economic policies, and in particular on demands that Russian military forces withdraw from the newly independent states. The Kremlin leadership quickly recognized that short of military action, its major foreign policy tool was the denial or threat of denial of access to Russia’s vast oil and gas resources. The economies of East European and Central Asian countries, and especially their rail and pipeline infrastructures, had been hardwired by Soviet leaders to assure total dependency on Moscow for their raw materials, including oil, gas, coal, and nuclear fuel.
Moscow also realized that the existing east-west energy pipelines gave Russia the ability to block European access to non-Russian gas and oil from the Caspian and Central Asian region. Russia’s use of energy resources and energy transmission systems to coerce its neighbors began as early as 1990, even before the formal collapse of the Soviet Union. The first countries to be targeted for energy intimidation were the three Baltic States, but others, like Ukraine, were soon pressured with the threat of losing natural gas imports. Within a few years, the countries marked for energy supply stoppages expanded substantially. In almost all cases the Kremlin’s planned interruptions occurred during the middle of winter when energy demand was at its peak. This very blunt use of energy disruption as policy is still being used to varying degrees of success in an attempt to force Russia’s neighbors to follow Moscow’s policy direction, although they employ more subtlety in their dealings with Western Europe.