Recent news has much of the West looking toward Ukraine: One week ago riots broke out in Ukraine, the pinnacle of a multi year long struggle between pro EU and Pro Russian citizens in the former Soviet Union. Following the cease of the riots, Ukraine’s pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted. Since then, Ukraine’s parliament has put in place an interim government and scheduled elections for May, while ousted president Yanukovych fled to Russia. Following the implementation of a new government, Russian troops have entered Crimea, the southern peninsula of Ukraine with a decidedly pro Russian population (many of whom are ethnically Russian). The West has been startled by what many have called Russia’s clear violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, and Ukrainian citizens have broken out in protest in favor of and against Russian forces around the country. Much like the 2008 South Ossetia War, Ukraine has the potential to quickly become a flashpoint of conflict.
Unlike most of the U.S. media, many analysts have been focused on the potential for conflict in the Ukraine for quite some time. The point of focus, however, has been from an energy perspective. Edward Chow, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and mentor to the author, has long focused some of his very limited time on Ukraine. Mr. Chow most recently wrote about Ukraine in December 2013, in the online CSIS Commentary, “Ukraine and Russian Gas–The Neverending Crisis”. Mr. Chow argues that Ukraine is at risk for becoming an energy appendage of Russia, with limited leverage over it’s more powerful neighbor and increasingly high debt. From the outside, it is easy for a lay person to see that this not only puts Ukraine in a vulnerable position economically, but strategically–the majority of Russia’s gas exports to Europe travel through Ukraine, making Russia’s need for Ukraine an important factor in its strong arming over the country.
Yes, other issues are creating a greater conflict between Russia and Ukraine (cultural and linguistic similarities, shared history, and EU vs Russian leaning foreign policies); however, the economic leverage Russia holds over Ukraine resulting from its poor energy policy has long been positioning the two countries for large scale conflict. As the crisis in Crimea escalates, Russia has every advantage, and has already started to send warning signals it may hold Russian Gas hostage as a result. Examining the conflict between Russia and Ukraine from an energy lens provides intriguing insights into the events currently unfolding, but also brings up an interesting question: Given the nature and history of disputes over energy resources, why are we unable to predict a conflict such as this? Are we looking in all the wrong places when making political predictions and charting future points of contention? Depending on the conflict, and the area of the world in question, perhaps tight energy markets and limited resources (or alternatives) do in fact precede conflict. Maybe analysts would be smart to take note of warning signs such as those in Ukraine.
New Russian Map: Posted to twitter via journalist Dave Keating on March 6, 2014, the following Map was used as an illustration of what would happen if Crimea’s parliament votes in favor of joining Russia on March 16:
Pipeline Trade: Pipelines from Russia & Belarus, traveling through Ukraine, carrying Russian gas to EU