There is no need to fight Russia - just harness an alternative to oil
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard – Telegraph.co.uk September 1, 2008
NATO is no longer part of my beat as a journalist, but let me remind those breezily pushing for an extension of the North Atlantic pact to Georgia and Ukraine what this actually means.
It exposes Britain and other Western powers to a high risk of war with Russia. It entangles us in ethnic disputes of enormous complexity deep inside the Kremlin sphere of influence, against a formidable military power, along supply lines that we cannot possibly defend.
Nato is not a golf club, or the plaything of neo-con adventurers. Article 5 obliges us to fight and die for the alliance. "The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all."
The Bush administration wants to extend this guarantee to both Georgia and Ukraine. So does John McCain, with even greater vehemence. Britain has gone along, against the better judgment of the Foreign Office. Fortunately for all Britons of military age, this foolish demarche was stalled by Germany and France in April.
We can argue back and forth about the conduct of the Georgians. Was it wise to strip South Ossetia of its historic autonomy, or shut down the sole Abkhaz university in Sukhumi? Was it necessary to shell Russian passport holders? But to enter the debate is to see the folly of letting such an immature democracy hold us hostage to war with Russia.
Such a commitment is not credible, and is therefore dangerous. It invites Russia to call Nato's bluff. The West will not risk conflict to rescue President Saakashvili from his misadventures, if push comes to shove. The inevitable climbdown would emasculate the alliance at the moment when it was most needed.
The credible Nato line in Eastern Europe runs along the borders of the European Union, from the Baltics to Romania. This pits Russia against a unified bloc of 505m people. Any attempt by Moscow to peel off Estonia or Latvia by stirring up Sudeten-style irredentism among their Russian minorities would be deemed a mortal challenge by the EU's elites. The "soft-power" muscles of the world's biggest economy would flex in earnest. Russia's bluff would be called.
This is not to criticise David Miliband's impassioned plea in Kiev. Russia's "unilateral attempt to redraw the map" is indeed a grave matter. The alleged parallel with Kosovo is so facile it does not deserve a response. "We need to raise the costs to Russia for disregarding its responsibility," he said. Quite so. But Nato membership for Ukraine is playing with fire. Some 30pc of the population are native-Russian speakers. The Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are uprisings-in-waiting along Russia's border.
Yet again, the Bush administration has misjudged events. Moscow has drawn a line in the sand over Georgia and Ukraine. To push this issue is to poke the world's biggest energy producer in the eye.
Washington is lucky that China is not taking advantage of this crisis to help Russia inflict a crippling lesson. Russia holds $580bn of foreign reserves. China holds $1,800bn. Together they own a third of the $1.5 trillion stock of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and other US agency bonds. They are holding a gun to the head of the US Treasury, and the US financial system.
So how should we handle the bad-tempered bear? Data from the International Energy Agency suggests that oil prices will fall back for a couple of years as the global downturn squeezes demand, and new deliveries come on-stream from Brazil, Africa, Central Asia and the US itself.
Russia's leverage as supplier of 6.5m barrels per day of crude exports will slip, but not for long. But oil may well climb to a new equilibrium price above $150 a barrel once the next global cycle starts in earnest.
If so, Russia will become an even bigger headache. It is willing to use the oil weapon. It cut off 50pc of crude deliveries to the Czech Republic in July after Prague signed a deal with the US on the missile shield.
Obviously, we must cut our reliance on oil and gas even faster than we are already doing. Nuclear and clean power stations must be built with more urgency than we have seen so far. Tide and wave power technology should be given the same strategic priority as aircraft carriers.
If I were an American citizen, I would expect Washington to sponsor a Manhattan Project to harness the solar power on a mass scale. My apologies to the CIA/Pentagon if such a blitz is under way. Jim Woolsey, the former CIA director, told me last week that the US will end its strategic dependence on oil much more quickly than people realise. "We can defeat oil as a transport fuel. Russia won't be able to push us around any more within a decade," he said.
He is counting on electric cars. His Toyota Prius can already run for two cents a mile when recharged overnight. The engine reverts to fuel after 20 miles. This will soon change. The new lithium-ion batteries are advancing by leaps and bounds.
There is no need to confront the Kremlin in the Caucasus or on the Dnieper. All we need to do is to chip away at its energy wealth. If we can drive oil back down to $70 a barrel, and keep it there, Russia will be reduced to a middling power of 141m people, with a deformed industry, in the grip of an acute demographic decline. We may even do the country a favour.
Oil is a double curse: it incubates the "Dutch Disease", and fosters autocracy. The Russian people would do better without it.
Last updated 03/09/2008