By John Ruehl
In the past decade, Russia has grown increasingly bolder in flexing its military muscle amongst its allies and neighbors. While Russia has been involved either directly or indirectly in other conflicts in the past ten years, Russian interventions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria stand out above the rest.
At first glance, the reasons behind all three conflicts appear to be a battle for territorial control and to keep these countries within a Russian sphere of influence. Georgia and Ukraine share borders with Russia, and had engaged in talks with NATO leaders to join the organization. Meanwhile, Russia got involved in the Syrian conflict in support of the Assad regime for a variety of reasons, including protecting its strategic interests in the country as well as fighting Islamist groups. Russia’s involvement in Syria also grants the Kremlin the ability to show that it supports its allies, no matter how desperate and despised they may be. Furthermore, the Russian military presence in Syria grants Putin a powerful voice at future territorial negotiations. With a violent stalemate in effect, Russian forces lie in the heart of the Middle East, a clear display of regional power projection.
At a deeper glance however, these three Russian military interventions share a particular trait – the Russian desire to control energy supply. Control over energy routes and supply into Europe has been part of Russia’s foreign policy for decades. It supplies the continent with much of its gas, giving it influence over recipient countries and a degree of price-control. As a result, Russia naturally attempts to have as much control over supply routes. Control over energy supply boosts a Russian economy dependent on its energy reserves, and provides Russia with considerable leverage against those who are dependent on Russian energy products.
In order to better understand how the need to control energy supply influenced Russian interventions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, one simply needs to examine events leading up to each of the interventions.
In April 2008, Georgia and Ukraine were offered NATO membership action plans. In August 2008, the Russian military invaded and occupied Georgia. Largely seen as a retaliatory measure against Georgia’s attempts to join NATO, another element may have persuaded the Russians to attack. In 2006, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline began operating. It passed through Azerbaijan, Georgia (both formerly part of the USSR) and then into Turkey, before continuing onto Europe. It was able to bypass existing Russian pipelines that brought energy in from the Caspian Sea.
The pipeline cannot supply all or even a significant part of Europe. However, it forms part of the network that supplies the continent. Pipelines are expensive to build and maintain, yet worth the cost for countries that can afford it. Controlling part of one gives countries considerable influence over those who need it. Five years before the conflict, a popular revolution had toppled the pro-Russian government in 2003. Moscow could no longer be sure that Georgia would continue to abide by their policy over energy supply. When the new pipeline was built in 2006, it further undermined a significant part of Russia’s regional power. As Georgia shifted away from Moscow’s orbit, Russian troops were sent in to convey the Kremlin’s displeasure.
Later in 2008, an energy price dispute broke out between Russia and Ukraine. On January 1st, 2009, Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, from where it would usually pass through to European markets. It caused panic across the continent, now subject to the whim of a Russian-Ukrainian dispute. Flow eventually resumed after almost three weeks, but the damage was done.
The incident demonstrated how dependent Ukraine was on Russian gas. Russia supplies Ukraine with a cheap supply, in order to gain leverage over its political and business leaders. The affair became a major controversy for the pro-Western Ukrainian government, which would lose the 2010 election.
As the tug-of-war over Ukraine between the West and Russia escalated in early 2014, Russian troops invaded and occupied Crimea in March, marking the beginning of the guerrilla war in Donbass. The Russian struggle for Ukraine has many reasons behind it. It is viewed as an important buffer zone against NATO, while Crimea hosts Russia’s only naval base on the Black Sea. Ukraine forms an integral part of Russian culture and history, and the military operations gave Putin a much-needed popularity boost. But a more subtle reason is the fact that 40% of Russian gas that flows into Europe passes through Ukraine. It is an important transit country that Russia would like to have as much control over as possible, as it increases their leverage over countries further down the line.
But how did Russia become embroiled in a Middle Eastern conflict? For one, Syria hosts the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean. They have since been granted a permanent air base in the country, too. The rise of ISIS also poses an ideological threat to Moscow. Russia has a large Muslim population, and the Kremlin is terrified of the spread of Islamic Fundamentalism. Once again, however, energy politics comes into play. Gas reserves in the Persian Gulf are owned by Iran and Qatar. Qatar has invested heavily in the Syrian Civil War, not least because the Syrian government once rejected a proposed pipeline that would have gone through Syria. Assad rationalized this decision in order to “protect the interests of its Russian ally, which is Europe’s top supplier of natural gas”.
Whatever a post-war Syria comes to resemble, Russia is undoubtedly going to be seated at the negotiating table. The Syrian government still exists in large part because it is being supported by Russian forces. Assad has been able to re-cement his control over much of the country, and owes Russia the biggest of favors. Proposals may continue for pipelines to traverse through the country, once an element of peace returns. Should one be built, Russia will have considerable influence over the decision-making process.
The reasons behind Russian militarism are numerous, but one constant theme has been energy. Though it may appear Russia’s militarism is an act of strength, it is an obvious recognition of weakness. Russia is dependent on energy supply for regional control and influence. Moscow is so concerned over losing that control that it is willing to act militarily. A diversification of Europe’s energy supply, particularly Eastern Europe’s, is one of many ways that countries could escape Moscow’s grasp. Save for a renewable energy revolution, societies will remain dependent on fossil fuels to function, and as a result, be dependent on the supplier of said fossil fuels.
Because of this, Russia will continue to attempt to control their supply as much as possible; dependence on a single supplier makes countries much more vulnerable to their demands. The Trump Administration seems willing to compromise. The new US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was given the Order of Friendship by Putin 2013. A former CEO of Exxon Mobil, he was opposed to the US-led sanctions on Russia after they invaded Crimea. Whether indicative of a wider change in policy or not, only time will tell how Russian and American grand strategies will engage in the energy sector.
John Ruehl is a research analyst and writer at Excalibur Group, which supports local and federal government agencies in defense, legal, and IT services. Previously, John worked at The Australian, the biggest-selling national newspaper in Australia. He has a master’s degree in peace, conflict, and development, and currently lives in Washington DC.