Rosneft

One of the greatest mistakes in the analysis of what is happening in Ukraine is the view of Russia as a one man dictatorship. That is clearly not the case. Moscow is a complex political society with numerous powerful figures. They, rather than Russia’s passive democracy, determine who is in charge. Vladimir Putin has been a strong leader but his power is not absolute. The eternal truth is that all leaders lose power in the end and very few go voluntarily.

After nearly 15 years in office as President or Prime Minister he has already exceeded the normal lifespan of leadership. Actuarially he is living on borrowed time and is dependent on continued success. In the current situation the line between success and failure is very narrow and energy issues are at the heart of the judgment. 

Tamar, a natural gas platform off IsraelThe Eastern Mediterranean is never dull. The whole area – land and sea – has been contested for centuries. And now, it turns out to have natural resources. Over the last decade, the area known as the Levant Basin has been identified as one of the world’s more interesting areas for exploration.

The first gas finds off the Israeli coast have led to a reappraisal not just of other areas along the coast from Egypt in the South to Turkey in the North, but also of the coastlines around the whole of the Mediterranean – from Albania to Spain. And the entry of Exxon and Rosneft into Lebanon opens up the prospect of another new exploration area and may provide a key to the development of the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole. 

Vladmir Putin (left) and Igor Sechin (right)“We are about to see a new wave of consolidation in the world’s oil and gas business.” The words are not mine – they were spoken earlier this month by the President of what is now the world’s largest energy business. Igor Sechin is the President of Rosneft, the Russian company which with the completion of the takeover of TNK now produces over 4 million barrels of oil per day – more even than Exxon.

Rosneft is 70 per cent owned by the Russian state. Mr Sechin, who is famous for a spell in Soviet intelligence, is one of the most powerful men in Russia. John D. Rockefeller used every device possible to limit competition as he built Standard Oil and was eventually defeated by a cultural and legal resistance to monopoly. Mr Sechin has no such problems. The consolidation of Russia’s oil assets over the last decade has had the full support of the Kremlin. 

Over the years, many governments, rivals, oligarchs and commentators have underestimated Vladimir Putin – often to their cost. When he came to power back in 1999, he was seen as simply a poodle, a temporary, technocratic figure as Mr Yeltsin’s prime minister with no political presence of his own. Some 13 years later, he is one of the longest serving leaders in the world.

Russia is no democratic paradise but by and large Mr Putin has avoided open conflicts and had begun to re-establish a position for Russia in the world – not quite the superpower it once was but rather as a country with a strong government that no one can afford to ignore.