Ariel Cohen: Moscow is willing to use energy as foreign policy tool

Despite its vast resource base and its formal assurances of its reliability as a partner, Moscow has already proved that it is willing to hike up oil and gas prices to match the general trend of higher energy prices, engage in anti-free market practices, especially at home and in Europe, and use energy as a foreign policy tool, Ariel Cohen , a leading expert of the Heritage Foundation for Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy, said in his speech at U.S. Congress on June 2.

The Congress Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia has invited Ariel Cohen to present expert assessment on energy policy. The meeting also addressed by Ambassador Richard Morningstar, Coordinator for Eurasian Energy at the Department of State, and Ambassador Keith Smith from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, former U.S. ambassador to Lithuania.

"Russia is willing to use force to achieve its geo-economic goals as well. Control of energy corridors from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea and beyond was an objective of the Russian military operation against Georgia in August 2008. This has been clearly confirmed by other incidents involving delays in energy supplies to Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and the Baltic states," Cohen said.

Military actions were launched in the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia in August 2008. Georgian troops entered Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia and later Russian troops occupied the city and drove the Georgian military back to Georgia. Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on Aug. 26 and established diplomatic relations with them on Sept. 9, 2008. In response, Tbilisi broke diplomatic relations with Moscow and declared two unrecognized republics the occupied territories.

The political scientist said Russia’s strategic goals include preventing countries around its borders from becoming pro-American as well as increasing control over the transportation of Russia hydrocarbons through the territory of its neighbors.

"Furthermore, the Kremlin aims to control the export of oil and gas from neighboring countries by directing their flow via the Russian pipeline system. As part of its strategy, Russia works to maintain control over energy transportation routes and opposes any projects that could provide Europe with alternative supply lines," the expert said.

The trend toward marginalizing and even actively persecuting independent Russian energy businesses has continued, with the controversial re-sentencing of Russian oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky in December of 2010, resulting in six more years in prison for the former businessman, said Cohen.

"The tainted nature of this case became even more evident after lawyer and blogger Alexei Navalny’s exposé of corruption in the construction of Transneft’s massive East Siberian pipeline. Some four billion U.S. dollars have been stolen or defrauded by individuals close to the Kremlin with no redress. Instead of thanking the whistle blower, the authorities paid Navalny back by launching a criminal investigation against him," Cohen said.

He said the non-transparent, unfair nature of the Khodorkovsky cases has received a great deal of criticism from Western leadership, including a statement from President Obama as well as European governments.

"The matter highlights not only the "vendetta" politics of contemporary Russia, but also that fact that the Russian government, not energy companies or international markets, sets policy on the nation’s economy, and particularly its energy sector," said Cohen.

Many argue that Moscow’s international energy behavior leaves its partners insecure and makes observers doubt that Russia is a responsible player, especially when unconstrained by competition and powerful investment sources, he said.

"European demand was very high before the recent economic crisis, and is projected to grow further provided the current geopolitical instability does not cause another global recession," Cohen said.