A self-confident Vladimir Putin took a reporter’s tough question head-on last February. The question had to do with whether Moscow was using its control of natural gas supplies as a political tool. The reporter was referring to the Russian company Gazprom, which forced Ukraine to accept a huge price increase in January. Because the Kremlin owns a controlling interest in the giant oil and gas company, Gazprom’s policies are Russia’s polices.
Russia wants membership in the World Trade Organization, which would not look favorably on what amounts to Russian imperialism, meddling in the Ukraine to hobble its pro-Western government.
But rather than step back from that impression, Putin shot back to the reporter’s question: “We still have plenty of nuclear rockets, too!” (Owen Matthews, “Russian Nukes Redux,” Newsweek International, Feb. 13, 2006). Such bravado would hardly comfort the WTO. He added that new Russian missiles were capable of out-maneuvering any missile-defense system. The last comment was for Washington, as the United States is the only nation with such a system.
Putin’s speech played well to the Russians, with whom he remains popular (he won his second term with 70 percent of the vote; his closest rival received only 14 percent), but it’s all for show. In reality, the new missiles are only in the development stage, and the rockets and submarines needed to launch the missiles are themselves nearly past their period of usefulness.
A decade from now, according to Russian security expert Dr. Aleksei Arbatov, “Russia is likely to have just 500 warheads…to America’s 2,000 state-of-the-art nukes” (ibid.).
So, nuclear arms aren’t what makes Russia a player on the world scene. Energy is the key.
Not nukes, but energy
President Putin makes no secret of the fact that he would dearly like to steer Russia back into the ranks of the world’s leading nations. Russia was a superpower in terms of nuclear capability, never economically. The nation remains poor, but that is in the process of changing—slowly.
Energy resources are a large part of that story. Gazprom is Russia’s largest company and the largest gas-producing company in the world. As Russia’s constitution requires that Putin step down at the end of his second term (only two years from now), some speculate that he would like to take the helm of Gazprom.
The company is destined to become even larger. Gazprom has or is in the process of signing deals with China, India, Japan, Korea, Italy, Germany, France, Iran, Britain, Austria, Belgium, Turkey, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, Belarus and the United States. It hopes to be a major supplier to the United States, providing up to 20 percent of America’s liquefied natural gas needs within a decade or so. In our energy-starved world, Gazprom’s oil and gas are in high demand. (That’s right—oil. Few realize that Russia is the world’s second largest producer of black gold.)
The 2004 tragic terrorist attack on a Belsan school that left hundreds of students dead was a watershed event in Russia. Afterwards, Putin tightened the reins of federal power. Russian citizens liked the move, for it seems that they prefer a strong central government.
Shortly after Belsan, Putin announced Moscow would appoint provincial governors, rather than have provincial elections choose them. Shortly thereafter, Putin supporters in the Duma (the Russian parliament) introduced a law to that effect. The Russian president proposes the governors, and their respective legislatures approve or disapprove. Although widely criticized outside Russia as an autocratic move, Putin shook off the complaints.
When President George Bush publicly criticized what he called the rolling back of freedoms in Russia, Putin angrily lashed back, accusing the United States of attempting to enforce its personal vision of democracy on the rest of the world—a not-so-subtle slam on the American role in democratizing Afghanistan and Iraq.
Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said recently that he sees his country becoming more and more like a dictatorship, reflecting upon state control of business and manipulation of the judiciary and the media.
Oppose the United States any way it can
Russia annoyed much of the Western world by inviting the newly elected Hamas leaders of the Palestinian government to Moscow for “talks.” It was a symbolic move that could only help raise the stature of Hamas. So why would Russia do such a thing? It is but another illustration of the desire of Putin’s Russia to be a major player in the world’s geopolitics again.
The recent translation of two Iraqi documents dated on the eve of the 2003 war revealed that the Russian ambassador relayed detailed intelligence on the American-led coalition’s battle plans and force strength to Saddam Hussein’s government. Russia seems to be willing to oppose the United States anywhere that it can, just as it did in the Cold War. Moscow is clearly smarting under the dominance of the world’s only superpower.
Another poke in America’s eye was Russia’s out-of-the-blue offer to Tehran to provide the Iranians with the enriched uranium they would require to fuel their Russian-built reactors. The offer temporarily sidetracked Washington’s tough stance against Iran’s ambitions.
Furthermore, Russia has been working for several years to improve its relationships with the Islamic world. Even though the Iranians turned down Russia’s offer of enriched uranium, Russian stock in the eyes of Muslims went up. And it helped its image even more by making it clear to the other members of the United Nations Security Council that it would veto a move to sanction Iran.
If the Iranian crisis leads to war, Russia would still benefit, because the price of oil would go up. And, unlike Saudi Arabia, Russia does not need the use of the Strait of Hormuz to export its product (it uses pipelines and railroad tank cars).
Lastly, we need to look at the SCO, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Formed by Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in 2001, this intergovernmental organization is little known in the West. Yet we are likely to hear more and more of it in the future.
Kazakhstan holds huge oil reserves that the United States would like to tap. It’s also strategically located for oil pipelines.
Uzbekistan was a critical link in the U.S. military’s toppling of Taliban-led Afghanistan, allowing the Americans to establish a base there, only 90 miles north of the Afghanistan border. But last year, Uzbekistan—under pressure from fellow SCO members—told the Americans to leave.
SCO is not a military alliance, but it does deal with security issues, enabling intergovernmental cooperation on pursuing, apprehending and prosecuting drug dealers, terrorists and other criminals. It is also a common market of sorts, facilitating business between central Asian countries.
No one paid much attention to the SCO when it began, but now that it is well established, Washington and NATO are taking notice. Washington recently asked for observer status at SCO’s annual meeting, but the group rebuffed the request.
SCO just announced it would extend invitations to four more countries to become members: Mongolia, India, Pakistan—and Iran. Iran’s deputy foreign minister said this move “’…could make the world more fair.’ And he spoke of building an Iran-Russian ‘gas-and-oil-arc’ by coordinating their activities as energy producing countries” (M.K. Bhadrakumar, “China, Russia Welcome Iran Into the Fold,” Asia Times, April 18, 2006).
An Iran-Russia energy alliance would be a formidable economic force. But there is a more immediate potential consequence to SCO’s invitation to Iran to become a member.
With the International Atomic Energy Agency report to the UN Security Council about Iran’s nuclear program due at the end of the April, Iran’s membership in this regional security organization affords it some credibility in debunking the U.S. assertion that it is a member of an “axis of evil.” Iran can say to the world, “Here’s proof that we are a responsible regional power.”
As we go to press, the SCO announced that their members would hold joint military exercises in 2007.
Where these developments fit into the prophetic grid
Russia’s “spoiler mentality” toward the United States does not itself threaten the latter as a superpower. But Moscow can certainly thwart American plans for Central Asian energy sources, which at the least will make energy more expensive for American consumers. At the worst, it could give Russia control over a sizable percentage of U.S. energy supplies.
And in the long term, Russia’s inclinations will help to strengthen China’s economic muscle, which many analysts are forecasting will present ever-increasing competition to the United States. Russian energy is critical to the continuing evolution of the European Union, which is the other primary competitor to the United States. Finally, Russia’s efforts to improve its relationships with Muslim countries will coincidentally promote the slow, but steady rise of Islamic influence at the end of the age.
For related information, please see our booklets, The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy, You Can Understand Bible Prophecy and The Middle East in Bible Prophecy. WNP