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The Empire Strikes Back – of History and Hydrocarbons (Part 1)

by Mirko Petriw (Vancouver)

The Russian Federation is not a nation-state like most of Europe’s larger countries. Russia is an Empire. Its citizens’ sense of self, their sense of pride and belonging is tied to a mythology of imperial grandeur, expansion and plunder. At one time the home of 85 distinct languages and dialects, many have since disappeared. Where a nation-state is like an organ, an empire is a tumor. It destroys as it expands, provided it has a steady and sufficient blood supply. In the case of the Russian Federation that blood supply is the revenue it collects on its sale of natural gas.

It was Winston Churchill who once famously described Russia as a Riddle inside a Mystery wrapped in an Enigma. It is worth noting that Winston’s predecessor of the previous century, Benjamin Disraeli, suffered no such confusion. Back in 1876, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli – in a letter to Queen Victoria, proposed “to clear Central Asia of Muscovites and drive them into the Caspian “. He did not call them Russians. Although the Czars demanded that their empire be renamed as the Rossian Empire, many politicians and cartographers alike continued to use the historical term Muscovy.

A look at the Russian Federation as a state shows it to be, despite a series of regime changes, a geographical and political continuation of the multiethnic empire, which Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis, had created. Historically known as Muscovy and even referred to as Tartary, this heritage bore little respect among the aristocratic circles of 18th century Europe. It was after gaining full control over the lands of the actual historic Rus’, the Ukrainian lands around Kyiv, that in 1721 Czar Peter the Great renamed the Czardom of Muscovy as the Rossian Empire in a transparent attempt to appropriate the legacy of ancient Rus’. But today the land of Rus’ is again outside the borders of this empire.

Strange as it may seem much of the political elite of the empire still feels a phantom limb pain for this missing land. Certainly the reassembling of the Rossian Empire has been an oft-stated goal of Vladimir Putin. It was on 24 April 2005 that Putin told his country that the collapse of the Soviet empire “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” . He left no doubt that he intended to right that wrong.

Just as Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet Commissar of Foreign Affaires declared in 1933 that “Food is a weapon. ”, Vladimir Putin realized that with respect to Rus’-Ukraine, Natural Gas could also be a weapon. It was on 1Jan 2006 that he first cut off gas from Ukraine. The effectiveness of this was hampered by the fact that such actions affected Western Europe too, and thus the inflow of revenue to Gazprom/Russia. For the natural gas weapon to work he had to isolate Ukraine. He had to build bypass pipelines around Ukraine.


The first Ukraine bypass pipeline was Nord Stream laid along the bottom of the Baltic Sea all the way to Germany. Putin even had former Chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schroder, agree to be chairman of the project .

The second much more ambitious pipeline project is South Stream, a pipeline that would transport natural gas from the Yamal deposit by the Arctic Sea, south to the east shore of the Black Sea, then under the sea bypassing Ukrainian territorial waters, to Varna in Bulgaria. This project, which is far from complete is now estimated to cost $77B. This expenditure is on top of the vanity expenditure of $50B for the Sochi Winter Olympics. Since Ukraine’s pipeline system is more than adequate for any projected European requirements, these are expenses that will not generate a single dollar of additional revenue. These are purely political projects that cannot be justified by neither economics nor common sense. It is no wonder that Russia is now sliding into a recession.

What has derailed the Putin plan is the shale gas revolution. As recently as 2010 Gazprom was anticipating supplying LNG to the USA! But what totally destroyed the plan was the discovery of shale gas in Ukraine . Ukraine is facing a future of natural gas self-sufficiency, if not that of a net supplier.


This calculation explains why although the EU Association Agreement overtures of a pro-Western, democratic reform President Yushchenko were rejected in November 2005 , the autocratic boorish thug of a President, Yanukovych, was very much invited to the table in the summer of 2013. It more than explains the panicked reaction of Putin when he realized that Russia’s influence over Ukraine would vanish, as would all hopes of reincorporation into the empire. The pressure Putin put on President Yanukovych was relentless and personal. Eventually the Yanukovych regime relented and accepted a loan promise from Russia in place of signing the Association Agreement with the European Union.

For another 10 weeks, despite all the activity on the Maidan, Kyiv’s City Square, Putin was satisfied that Ukraine was still in Russia’s orbit. Then late on 21 February Yanukovych abandoned his post. He went AWOL and eventually showed up in Russia. He was formally impeached by the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) and a search warrant was issued. As the curtain closed on the Sochi Winter Olympics on 23 February, Putin realised that he had bet the farm on his bypass pipelines, and lost. Like the gambler in a Hollywood Western that realizes that he overplayed his hand, Vladimir Putin kicked over the card table and drew his gun. As the last visitors to the Olympics were filing through the airport gates, the Russian military began to roll its APC’s beyond the confines of their Sevastopol base to begin the occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

Originally posted on March 4, 2014 –

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