Recent Russian escapades in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria have all shown the enthusiasm of the Kremlin act militarily abroad, again. The reasons behind the conflicts vary but occasionally overlap. For example, Georgia and Ukraine’s location on the Russian border meant they were obvious choices after they had flirted with joining NATO. Meanwhile, a pro-Russian Syrian government is largely dependent on Russian military force at this moment in the Syrian Civil War. Applying that force and stabilizing the regime will give Russia a powerful voice at future peace negotiations.
But all three conflicts share a particular trait -energy supply. Control over energy routes into Europe has been a key part of Russia’s foreign policy for decades. It supplies the continent with much of its gas, giving it leverage over recipient countries and a degree of price-control. Russia’s economy, already under strain from Western sanctions, is heavily dependent on the price of energy. Russia will naturally attempt to have as much control over the supply routes, which also serves to compliment their own significant energy reserves. Not only does this bolster their economy, but it can be used as a tool against those who are dependent on a Russian-controlled energy supply.
For almost two decades, the Russian military had not engaged openly in an active conflict located outside its borders. After Georgia and Ukraine were offered NATO membership action plans in April of 2008, it represented two more areas in which the western alliance system would be on their borders. In August, the Russian military invaded and occupied Georgia. Pressuring the leadership enough until it was forced to step down would demonstrate to their respective political establishments the consequences of attempting to join NATO.
But there was another recent development that perhaps aided Moscow’s decision to attack Georgia. In 2006, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (see above) began pumping energy into Europe. 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.
Though the pipelines cannot supply all or even a significant part of Europe, together, with others, they form part of the lifelines that supply 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 its destination country.
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 power in the region. Russian troops were sent in to convey their feelings towards the Georgian shift away from Moscow’s orbit, and remain in areas of the country to this day.
Georgia did not take Russian eyes off Ukraine for long. Later in 2008, a price dispute broke out between Russia and Ukraine, not two years after their last one. On January 1st, 2009, Russia then cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, where it would usually continue into other European markets. The decision caused panic in many European countries, now subject to the whim of a Russian price disputes with Ukraine.
Flow eventually resumed after almost three weeks, but the damage had been done. The pricing dispute became a major headache for the pro-Western government. Ukraine is heavily dependent on Russian gas. Russia cutting off that gas was a message to Ukraine and the countries who share the same supply line. Any deals with foreign institutions (NATO, EU) that countries were flirting with would be met with collective suffering. In the 2010 Ukrainian election, voters would choose the pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych to lead the country out of the debacle.
When his government succumbed to popular revolt in 2014, its pro-Western successor was forced to deal with Russian repercussions. Russia invaded and occupied the Crimean Peninsula, a largely Russian-populated area of land jutting out into the Black Sea. Though the Russian struggle for Ukraine has many reasons behind it, one of them is certainly the fact that Ukraine is integral to Russian supply into Europe. Over half of Russian gas into Europe passes through Ukraine, making it an important transit country that Russia would like to have as much control over as possible.
But how did Russia become embroiled in a Middle Eastern conflict, and how is energy involved? The Syrian Civil War, soon to be in its 6th year, has been a focal point of the region’s major powers. The reasons behind them, again, are numerous. Russia’s too are plentiful, but once again, energy politics comes into play.
Gas reserves in the Persian Gulf are owned by both Iran and Qatar. Qatar has invested heavily into the Syrian Civil War, not least because the Syrian government rejected their proposed pipeline (see above). Assad, leader of Syria, rationalized this decision in order to “protect the interests of [its] Russian ally, which is Europe’s top supplier of natural gas” (The Guardian 2013).
No matter what a post-war Syria looks like, Russia is undoubtedly going to have a powerful voice at future peace negotiations. The government of Syria still exists because the Russian military intervened in 2015 to prop up the regime, at a time when the war was going badly for it. The government has been able to cement its control over much territory it had lost, and it owes Russia the biggest favors. Whenever something resembling peace returns to Syria, proposals may continue for pipelines to traverse through the country. Should one be built, Russia is likely to have considerable influence over the decision-making process.
Russian aggressiveness in regards to pursuing its regional energy policy isn’t about stopping the flow or even preventing it from ever going through. It is about having the potential to do so, should the Kremlin feel it necessary. It is also about controlling whose resources are being transported, as well as the amount. Control over flow gives Russia considerable leverage over export and import countries. It also gives Moscow an element of control over prices, which Russia needs at a certain level due to their reliance on energy revenue. Friendly governments in Georgia and Ukraine are much easier to control than pro-Western ones, wary of the influence Russia may have over them.
Though it may appear that Russia’s militarism is an act of strength, in a sense it is an obvious recognition of their own weakness. They are dependent on energy supply routes for regional control and influence, particularly over some European countries. Moscow is so concerned over losing that control that it is willing to engage in conflicts overseas, at least in part because of it. A diversification of Europe’s energy supply, particularly Eastern Europe’s, is one of many way’s that countries could escape Moscow’s grasp. Save for a renewable energy revolution, societies will remain dependent on fossil fuels to function. 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.