Russia has played a master stroke in the current oil crisis by taking the lead in forming a new cartel, but it’s a move that could spell geopolitical disaster.
The meeting between Russia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela on 16 February 2016 was the first step. During the next meeting in mid-March, which is with a larger group of participants, if Russia manages to build a consensus—however small—it will further strengthen its leadership position.
Until the current oil crisis, Saudi Arabia called the crude oil price shots; however, its clout has been weakening in the aftermath of the massive price drop with the emergence of US shale. The smaller OPEC nations have been calling for a production cut to support prices, but the last OPEC meeting in December 2015 ended without any agreement.
Now, with Russia stepping in to negotiate with OPEC nations, a new picture is emerging. With its military might, Russia can assume de facto leadership of the oil-producing nations in the name of stabilizing oil prices.
Saudi Arabia has been a long-time U.S. ally, but that, too, is changing. Charles W. Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Riyadh, recently noted that “We've seen a long deterioration in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and it started well before the Obama Administration.”
U.S.-Saudi relations further soured due to the Iran nuclear deal that ended in January with the U.S. lifting sanctions—a move the Saudis vehemently opposed. The Saudis had to look for a new ally to safeguard their interests in the Gulf, considering the threats they face from the Islamic State (ISIS) and Iran. Though both Russia and Saudi Arabia are on opposing ends in Syria, with Russia supporting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and the Saudis supporting the Sunni rebels, the large drop in prices seems to have opened a window of opportunity for Russia to ally with Saudi Arabia.
This is not the first time that Russia and Saudi Arabia have sought a close partnership. Even in 2013, The Telegraph had reported an attempt to form a secret deal, which did not go through. Iran has been a trusted ally of Russia for a long time, and if Russia can broker a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it can also push through some sort of secret OPEC deal.
The production freeze to January levels that was bandied about last month carries no significance in concrete terms because Russia, Saudi Arabia and most other nations on board are pumping close to their record highs. Barclays’ commodity research chief Kevin Norrish said it was “vital to note” that there was not much incremental production expected from Russia, Qatar or Venezuela this year anyway. It was the Saudi’s that really mattered, as reported by Forbes.
Though Iran hasn’t committed to a production freeze, since it wants to ramp up production to pre-sanction levels, Russian Energy Minister Aleksander Novak has noted that "Iran has a special situation as the country is at its lowest levels of production. So I think, it might be approached individually, with a separate solution."
With all the major Gulf nations agreeing, Iraq, which is without a credible political leadership, will also likely follow suit if Russia assures them of stronger support against ISIS.
If the above scenario plays out, Russia will emerge as the de facto leader of the major oil producing nations of the world, accounting for almost 73 percent of the global oil supply.
Along with this, Russia has been in the forefront of plans to move away from Petrodollars, and Moscow has formed pacts with various nations to trade oil in local currencies. With this new cartel of ROPEC (Russia and OPEC nations), a move away from petrodollars will become a reality sooner rather than later.
Russia is smart. Vladimir Putin is genius. Moscow senses the opportunity that is almost tangibly floating about in the low crude price environment and appears to be ready to capitalize on it in a way that would reshape the geopolitical landscape exponentially.
Though a solution in Syria is welcome, a large cartel of major oil producing nations of the world with Russia as the head would be a major upset to the current balance of power. With this potential in mind, the mid-march meeting should be very interesting for the global oil patch—well beyond talk of production cuts and supply gluts.