President Vladimir Putin  © Getty Images

With oil prices back down to $50 a barrel for Brent crude, a falling gas price and its share of the European energy market declining, the Russian economy is in real trouble. The situation is dangerous because the problems cannot easily be corrected. The risk is that the economic problems could lead to political instability both within Russia and around its borders.

Anyone wanting to understand the historical context for what is happening in Russia should read Restless Empire a newly published book written around a series of maps which take go back to the emergence of the Slavs some 5000 years BC. The book, edited by the late Ian Barnes who sadly died before publication, is beautifully presented and free of the biased commentary so often associated with histories of Russia. The maps in particular are fine examples of immaculate design applied to the presentation of complex data. I only wish there were more maps, and in particular more on the production and trade in energy that dominates the modern Russian economy. Read more


  © Getty Images

Politicians and policy makers can only focus on one problem at a time. With all attention concentrated on Greece for the past month there is a real danger that an even greater problem is developing, almost unnoticed, in Ukraine. The economy there is in deep trouble. A further collapse, perhaps triggered by a debt default, could lead to an outflow of refugees that would make the problem of migrants crossing the Mediterranean look trivial. Energy is at the heart of the crisis but could just possibly be part of the solution.

The basic story is well known. Since the Maidan demonstrations in November 2013, the Ukrainian economy has shrunk. A 5 per cent fall last year is variously forecast to be followed by a contraction of between 5 and 10 per cent in 2015. Investment has ground to a halt and in the energy sector big potential projects such as the shale gas developments planned by Shell and Chevron have been halted. The fighting in the east has cut off coal supplies to the rest of the country from the 300 mines in the Donbass region. The Russian annexation of Crimea has cut off gas supplies from the developments managed by Chernomorneftegaz in the Black Sea. Ukraine, as a result, has become even more dependent on imports of coal and gas from South Africa, Australia, other parts of Europe and even ironically from Russia. These supplies do not come cheap and in many cases suppliers will only do business if they are paid in advance and in hard currency. Read more


Amber Rudd  © Getty Images

Last week’s decision by the UK’s new energy secretary, Amber Rudd, to approve Centrica’s plans for a dramatic increase in gas imports from Gazprom has cast a cloud of uncertainty over Britain’s policy on sanctions against Russia. In recent months the UK, along with the US, has been one of the strongest advocates of tough sanctions. In Europe, opinion has been more equivocal and divided. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, called the Russian occupation of Ukraine “a criminal act” when she was in Moscow last weekend. Many in Germany and France, however, see sanctions as pointless. To them, Russia is a neighbour, difficult at times certainly, but a presence to be lived with. Ukraine on this view is of no strategic importance and its multiple problems stem from its own corruption. Now it seems that the UK has switched sides in this debate.

The first thing to be made clear is that Centrica has done nothing wrong. The company’s intention of doing business with Russia was signalled at the AGM three weeks ago when its chairman said that Russia would be a major supplier of gas to Europe for a long time to come. I don’t doubt that Centrica has got a very good deal. Having won approval so easily I wouldn’t be surprised if they do more business with Gazprom. Read more

The urgent attempts by Europe’s leaders to negotiate a solution to the crisis in Ukraine represent an open acknowledgement that the policy of sanctions has so far failed. Mr Putin continues to destabilise the Government in Kiev and to undermine its authority in the east of the country. They may also reflect a growing realisation that sanctions are in danger of backfiring. Greece faces a serious debt crisis but at least the debate on how to resolve that crisis is now being held in the open. we know the options and the risks. In Russia, however, there is another debt crisis which is going unmanaged and which could easily get out of hand. Read more

Wind turbines in Peitz, Germany.

Wind turbines in Peitz, Germany © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Forget Opec. If cartels can’t control output, they can’t control prices and in due course they fall apart, usually with a great deal of ill will in the process. The evidence of the last six months is that Opec can’t control the market — ask yourself how many Opec members want to see a price of $60 a barrel for their oil. Some in Saudi Arabia think a low price can squeeze out competing suppliers, but that feels like a justification after the fact of a fall which they can’t control. The question now is how the process of adjustment to the new price level will work. Read more

Russian president Vladimir Putin greets Chinese president Xi Jinping at the Apec meeting in Beijing last month © AFP

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin heads to New Delhi next weekend and will sign a deal with India on energy supply, marking the latest step in a remarkable set of developments that will reshape the international energy business and particularly the natural gas market for years to come. Read more

Russian energy minister Alexander Novak, EU energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger and Ukraine's energy minister Yuri Prodan sign an agreement on October 30 (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

  © Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty

The deal announced on Friday between Russia, Ukraine and the EU looks to have removed the immediate risk of gas supplies to Ukraine being cut off over the winter. The EU and the IMF will underpin Ukrainian purchases with payment in advance. It is not clear from what has been published so far whether this deal will now become the norm for the future. As it stands for this year at least, the deal is mutually beneficial. The Russians, who need the money, will get paid. The Europeans, who have no wish for an open conflict, are able to buy their way out of trouble at least for the moment. But this is not the end of the story. While the short-term issue of energy supplies may have been resolved, the question of Ukraine’s longer term status has not. Read more

Conspiracy theories abound around the oil price fall. A 25 per cent drop in less than three months is certainly exceptional and the assumption is that in a politically driven market a political decision by someone, somewhere must have forced prices down. The most popular conspiracy theory is that the US and the Saudis have combined to take money away from their major enemies – Russia and Iran. In both cases, [the argument goes], a shortage of revenue could help to bring President Vladimir Putin and the Supreme Leader, the ailing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the negotiating table to sort out a deal on Ukraine and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In a complicated world anything could be true. I don’t happen to believe the conspiracy theory but I accept that it is a possibility. To me the interesting thing is what happens next, and that is down to the Saudis. The risk for the whole industry, and for many countries dependent on oil revenues, is that Saudi Arabia’s games have led them to lose control of the market. Prices could go a good deal lower with wide and mostly negative consequences, starting with more regional instability and a cutback in investment which can only feed the next cycle. Read more

Mikhail Khodorkovsky at a public meeting on April 27, 2014 in Donetsk, Ukraine

Mikhail Khodorkovsky at a public meeting on April 27, 2014 in Donetsk, Ukraine  © Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

It might seem strange, even wishful thinking, to question how long Vladimir Putin will remain in power. Mr Putin, who is 61, seems to be in good health and apparently in complete control of every element of the power structure in Moscow – including, through Gazprom and Rosneft, the key levers of the energy sector. He has defied US and European pressure and sanctions over Ukraine, and has begun to restore Russia’s status in the world as a great power which can’t be ignored.

That is the story — but behind the facade the cracks appear. The Emperor has fewer clothes than he pretends. And now from the past comes Nemesis, in the form of one of the few Russians who has dared to challenge Mr Putin openly — Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

In his first public statement about Russia’s domestic politics since leaving prison in December 2013, Mr Khodorkovsky told Le Monde last week that he was relaunching his Open Russia project — not so much a new political party as a horizontal network of social groups seeking change and modernisation across Russia. He said he would not be “interested in the idea of becoming president of Russia at a time when the country would be developing normally… But if it appeared necessary to overcome the crisis and to carry out constitutional reform, the essence of which would be to redistribute presidential powers in favour of the judiciary, parliament and civil society, then I would be ready to take on this part of the task.” Read more

The Brent oil price has now fallen by 15 per cent in less than three months and is now below the psychologically important figure of $100 a barrel. Last week I wrote about the reaction in the industry. But the fall is beginning to have political consequences as well.

Brent Crude Oil Future three month chart

Across the world oil producing and exporting countries have come to rely on high, and ideally rising prices. Some countries save the revenue for a rainy day, but most, especially those with rising populations, tend to spend. Circumstances vary, as do the realistic options for adjustment, but the current concern is real and will shape political actions well beyond the oil sector itself. Read more

A pro-Kremlin rally in St Petersburg. OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images

The conventional wisdom is simple – business and politics are two separate worlds, which should not mix. Corporate leaders should not be involved in anything that smacks of political activity. Business exists to make money not policy.

That is the mantra – and it is wrong. In two weeks time the St Petersburg International Economic Forum is due to meet. Business leaders should be there and should have the nerve to tell Vladimir Putin what he doesn’t want to hear.

The St Petersburg forum is President Putin’s answer to Davos – a prestige event designed to show that Russia is a key part of the global economy. As the FT reported last Friday, the US government does not want business leaders to attend. Valerie Jarrett, Mr Obama’s adviser, has been calling CEOs telling them not to go, as part of the process of demonstrating that after what has happened in Ukraine, Russia is isolated and friendless. Many are taking her “advice”. In Europe the position is more ambivalent. European sanctions on Russia are soft and the rhetoric from Berlin and Brussels even softer. Many European leaders seem to regard Ukraine as Russia’s sphere of influence. There is little appetite for bringing the country into either the EU or Nato. In contrast to Russia, Ukraine cannot afford to employ the lobbying skills of Gerhard Schröder and his ilk. Read more

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. Read more

The first and easiest prediction arising from the continuing crisis in Ukraine and the deterioration of relations between Russia and the EU is that natural gas prices will rise. After all half the gas Europe imports from Russia comes through Ukraine. Very little of that supply can be replaced from other sources in the short term.

Russia has announced a sharp (44 per cent) increase in prices for the gas supplied to Ukraine – in part as a punishment for past unpaid bills. Surely Europe must be vulnerable to either a cut-off of supplies or a forced price rise? And yet in the real world actual gas prices have fallen over the past month and now stand at a three-year low. Is the market mad? Read more

The dispute over Ukraine has moved into a diplomatic phase and for the moment at least the prospect of a Russian advance into eastern Ukraine has receded. The consequences of what happened in the Crimea, however, continue to shape European policy making. The invasion provided a sharp reminder of Europe’s reliance on Russian gas – a degree of dependence which the EU will now reduce even if a settlement is agreed by the diplomats. It is quite possible that within two or three years European gas imports from Russia could be halved. Russia would be reduced to being one supplier among many in a world where gas-to-gas competition inexorably reduces prices. Read more

This week’s meeting of the European Council in Brussels will be a significant test of the EU’s relevance and unity in dealing with the consequences of what is happening in Ukraine. Over the years as indigenous production, especially of gas, has declined Europe has allowed itself to become more and more dependent on Russian supplies. Last year Europe imported 160bn cubic metres of gas – a quarter of its total requirements. Even if Russia were a normal country that level of dependency would look high. Now, with Russia ignoring the strong messages from the German and American governments urging restraint in Ukraine, and massing troops on the border, reducing that degree of dependence is a matter of urgency. Read more

What happens now for the numerous companies, led by the oil majors, who have chosen to invest in Russia? The surprising answer may be that the short-term risks are less serious than the longer term prospects of disengagement as energy consumers, especially in Europe, reduce their dependence on a supplier they do not trust. Read more

Putin at the launch of the Russian section of a Russia-China oil pipeline in 2010. (Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty)

As well as demonstrating the courage of Ukraine’s people, the one thing that the country’s political crisis of the past few weeks has made clear is the weakness of Russia. President Vladimir Putin likes to present his country as a reviving world power but it is trapped by its own dependence on oil and gas.

The threats and sabre-rattling will no doubt continue. Russia may be able, and should perhaps be allowed, to keep control of the Crimea and its black sea naval base at Sevastapol – though history does suggests that current events are simply sowing the seeds of another long-running conflict there, not least with the Tatars.

Beyond that, however, Moscow is in no position to confront Europe or even the new government in Kiev. The Ukrainians must not allow themselves to be provoked by an Emperor who has no clothes. Read more

Vladimir Putin has finished the year in style, consolidating Russian control in Ukraine and winning easy brownie points for the release of controversial prisoners including the oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and two female members of the punk band Pussy Riot. The Russian president has also, in a move easily missed in the middle of Christmas, extended Russia’s position in one of the world’s most interesting new oil and gas regions – the Levant basin in the eastern Mediterranean. Read more

Ukraine, to coin a phrase, is a far way country of which we know little. Its geographic misfortune is to be the buffer state between western Europe and Russia. With all eyes on Iran, too little attention is being paid to the fact that Ukraine is being forced back under the control of the Kremlin.

This week’s events send a very negative signal to western investors who had hoped to develop Ukraine’s extensive shale gas resources both for local use and for export to other parts of eastern and central Europe. The assertion of Russian power over President Viktor Yanukovich and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov will also send a shiver across the other former Soviet satellite states in eastern Europe. Some, like Poland and Romania, are safely within the EU. Many others are not, to say nothing of the major energy producers around the Caspian Sea, such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Read more

The Chinese, as reported by my colleague Guy Chazan, are in talks with EDF on sharing the costs of building the new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Their price is an unspecified “degree of control”. The Russian company Rosatom announced a couple of weeks ago that it was considering joining the game with the aim of building future nuclear stations in the UK. Perhaps we should be grateful that such nice people have taken an interest in the UK’s energy needs. But before we roll over in gratitude perhaps we should consider the links between energy and security. Read more