Thursday, January 29, 2009

Putin, Energy, the Russian Agenda

NYTimes | The titans of Russia’s energy industry gathered around an enormous map showing the route of a proposed new pipeline in Siberia. It would cost billions and had been years in the planning. After listening to their presentation, President Vladimir V. Putin frowned, got up from his chair, whipped out a felt pen and redrew the map right in front of the embarrassed executives, who quickly agreed to his alternative.

The performance, which was carried on state television in 2006, was obviously stage managed, but there was nothing artificial about its point. It was a typical performance for a leader who has shown an uncanny mastery of the economics, politics and even technical details of the energy business that goes well beyond a politician taking an interest in an important national industry.

“I would describe it as very much his personal project,” said Clifford G. Gaddy, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and an expert in Russia’s energy policy. “It is the heart of what he has done from the very beginning.”

Indeed, from his earliest days in power in 2000, Mr. Putin, who left the presidency in 2008 and became prime minister, decided natural resource exports and energy in particular would not only finance the country’s economic rebirth but also help restore Russia’s lost greatness after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Just this month, Mr. Putin’s personal immersion in the topic was on full display as he ordered natural gas shut off to Ukraine, in the process cutting supplies to Europe. It was portrayed by the Kremlin as a protracted commercial dispute with Ukraine. But the hundreds of thousands of shivering gas customers in the Balkans and Eastern Europe sent an unmistakable message about the Continent’s reliance on Russian supplies — and Mr. Putin’s willingness to wield energy as a political weapon.