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The writing on the Russian wall

According to information linked to by Glenn Reynolds, the New World is poised to become the center of gravity for oil production by the end of this decade. There is as much as 2 Trillion Barrels in the US; another 2 trillion in South America and 2.4 Trillion reserves in Canada.

This affects the Middle East but it hits Russia even more. Over the last decade two of their big earners have been oil exports and aerospace. These have been just about the only sources of national power they have. Oil and gas exports have been used as a carrot and stick against the Europeans. The need for Soyuz launches to the International (but mostly US funded) Space Station have softened reactions from the US congress. The Russians know the US can only make noises about sales to Iran and others like them because ISS is and has been essentially hostage to their good graces for years.

SpaceX and American companies like them are about to shift the center of gravity for space systems back to US dominance. This has huge geopolitical implications. Cargo and crew flights to ISS will be fungible. If the Russians threaten a stand down, all that is needed to counter it are extra purchases from an American provider. That assumes we are even still buying Soyuz as the desire for Congressional ‘pork’ will almost certainly be overwhelming. It will result in a ‘buy American’ requirement for all US Government space flight as soon as SpaceX proves they can handle the job. On top of it all, if SpaceX delivers on the low prices it is quoting, and there is no reason to believe they will not, Russia and China and Europe are all going to be priced out of the commercial launch business in short order.

That is why the Russians are not happy about the SpaceX Dragon rendezvous and docking with ISS in December. With that docking and the shift in global energy production the writing is on the wall for Russia. Its days as even a minor world power are numbered. The implications of that are not necessarily good. Russia’s ruling classes have been known to do very bad things when they feel threatened.

Whatever the case, we are going to find out by the end of this decade.

9 comments to The writing on the Russian wall

  • steve

    Russia’a future for good or ill rests in their own hands. Even if they do lose oil revenue, Russia is soo vast compared to it’s relatively small population there should always be something valuable it can mine or grow to keep its small population in clover if only their kleptocrats will let them.

  • Dale Amon

    Yes, Russia could be a global power if they were truly free, and they might well move that way eventually. Putin is not the man to do that however. He seems to like the old world power status and many Russians are wistful for the days when they were scary and important… they forget that they were slaves in their own country.

    Russian military might has been rusting away; oil was their big hope for a means to pay for modernization. That’s the ‘Hard Power’ side of the equation.

    Oil is also part of the ‘Soft Power’ they have and it is quite significant. I seem to remember they cut off the flow of natural gas to Europe at one point to send a message.

    Soyuz has been an indirect form of soft power. Because of the agreements with the US government and the fact that even in its hey day the Shuttle could not deliver crews and cargo often enough, they held a veto on ISS. That left them free to sell arms to people guaranteed to infuriate the US government and do so with impunity. The Russians got a threefer from this. Foreign exchange into their Aerospace sector for the flights; a way to advance their own interests in areas by countering american power; and much needed foreign exchange and increased volume production of weapons systems which allowed them to buy cheaper for their own forces.

    I am not against Russia being allowed to sell their space capabilities globally in a free market, and I am not for the US banning the use of Soyuz. It is a fine rocket albeit very long in the tooth. What I do like is the prospect that we cannot be held hostage. If the Russian government does something counter to our interests we need to be able to take actions required for our national interest.

    If this whole process drives Russia towards a more entrepreneurial and less oligarchical system, then the coming changes will be a bigger win for the people of Russia than for anyone else.

  • F0ul

    Russia has the future sorted. By the next crash, 2024 or so, Russia will be in the position that we currently see China. Why you may ask?
    Because of the Green madness of the EU is going to force all the power to be imported from Russia. The EU is the biggest of all trading blocks, so to be the main supplier of energy is going to make your position extremely strong.

    Secondly, Russia leads the world in clever IT thinking – that is, their programmers are able to make things happen will hardly anything. That is also going to be very valuable in the next decade.

    I have made my provisions – I’m learning Russian! ;)

  • steve

    I agree that Russian programmers have a reputation for doing more with less. Not so sure this will translate into a significant advantage. The past few decades have been characterized by increasingly cheaper transistors. The winners have been those who found something, anything really, useful to do with these increasingly cheaper and more numerous transistors. The successes have been characterized by the speed of their code production not the efficiency of their code. If transistors stop getting cheaper so quickly this could change, but I hesitate to bet on it.

    Having said that their should always be niches for efficiency of code in particular applications. I just don’t ecpect tight code to be the dominant driver in the near future.

  • PeterT

    And Russia’s population is due to fall by 30m people in the next 40 years (about.com). I bet the population of the US will be 400m by then; i.e. 4 times larger. If I were dictator of the US I would love to hasten this along with an open door immigration policy for young Russian scientists, engineers, and super models.

  • Laird

    I’d love to see the US less dependent on foreign sources of oil, but I can’t see it happening to any significant degree. The environmental lobby here is still too strong: if, during a prolonged and profound recession (if not actually a depression) we still can’t seriously access our oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico or off the California coast, let alone in northern Alaska, and the Greens are even stymieing development of oil shale, what hope do we have? Yes, Canadian and South American production may (likely will) increase, but so will our demand. So I think the Glenn Reynolds piece is wildly overoptimistic on this score.

    And for Russia there’s still the European market, not to mention its own former satellite nations which are still more or less under its dominance. Any (slight) reduction in US demand will be offset by those markets, especially with respect to natural gas. I can see only two real risks to the Russian oil/gas markets: a serious attempt in Europe to implement anti-global warming initiatives (which would be disastrous for the EU economies, but they seem suicidal enough that it could occur), and the collapse of the Euro and the EU (a more likely event).

    And as to Soyuz, are we (the US) even using the ISS very much these days? Would anyone even care if we stopped sending missions up there? That hardly seems like a very potent “stick” for the Russians to wield any more.

  • Eric

    And as to Soyuz, are we (the US) even using the ISS very much these days? Would anyone even care if we stopped sending missions up there? That hardly seems like a very potent “stick” for the Russians to wield any more.

    The problem is the ISS’s orbit is low enough that atmospheric drag is nontrivial. You have to boost it up a bit every so often or it will eventually fall out of the sky.

    And if that happened all the vitally important stuff we do on the ISS won’t be done any more. Stuff like… uh… well, as I said, vitally important stuff.

  • Paul Marks

    The Russian government has fired its Finance Minister and now seems committed to a policy of “spend, spend, spend”.

    That policy of copying the United States (and so on) will, if followed, not turn out well.

    Remember what really undermined Yeltsin (and general civil liberties in Russia), it was following Western advice on money and banking.

    I.E. the vast credit money bubble inflation.

    Most Russians did not know that the government had created it (following Clinton era Western advice) – they thought “capitalism” or “market reforms” had robbed them of their savings and undermined their country.

    So the pro freedom experiment in Russia (including civil liberties) was discredited.

  • Paul Marks

    Too much to hope that (with the decline of natural resouce prices – if this takes place) the spend, spend, spend authoritarianism of the Russian regime might be discredited?