Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Oil Weapon

Fears are mounting that Russia may restrict oil deliveries to Western Europe over coming days, in response to the threat of EU sanctions and Nato naval actions in the Black Sea.

Any such move would be a dramatic escalation of the Georgia crisis and play havoc with the oil markets.

Reports have begun to circulate in Moscow that Russian oil companies are under orders from the Kremlin to prepare for a supply cut to Germany and Poland through the Druzhba (Friendship) pipeline. It is believed that executives from lead-producer LUKoil have been put on weekend alert.

"They have been told to be ready to cut off supplies as soon as Monday," claimed a high-level business source, speaking to The Daily Telegraph. Any move would be timed to coincide with an emergency EU summit in Brussels, where possible sanctions against Russia are on the agenda.

Any evidence that the Kremlin is planning to use the oil weapon to intimidate the West could inflame global energy markets. US crude prices jumped to $119 a barrel yesterday on reports of hurricane warnings in the Gulf of Mexico, before falling back slightly.

Global supplies remain tight despite the economic downturn engulfing North America, Europe and Japan. A supply cut at this delicate juncture could drive crude prices much higher, possibly to record levels of $150 or even $200 a barrel.

With US and European credit spreads already trading at levels of extreme stress, a fresh oil spike would rock financial markets. The Kremlin is undoubtedly aware that it exercises extraordinary leverage, if it strikes right now.

Such action would be seen as economic warfare but Russia has been infuriated by Nato meddling in its "backyard" and threats of punitive measures by the EU. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday accused EU diplomats of a "sick imagination".

Armed with $580bn of foreign reserves (the world's third largest), Russia appears willing to risk its reputation as a reliable actor on the international stage in order to pursue geo-strategic ambitions.

"We are not afraid of anything, including the prospect of a Cold War," said President Dmitry Medvedev. UK Telegraph - Russia may cut off oil flow to the West