The recent drop in oil prices is generally referred to as a ‘Saudi-Russian price war’. This is a wrong description. Two things are happening. Firstly, as renewables are becoming cheaper and cheaper, oil is becoming increasingly irrelevant, and all countries with large oil deposits are scrambling to get as much as possible out of the ground before it is too late. Secondly, the OPEC+ oil cartel has failed, as outsiders – often called ‘free riders’ – have increased production so much that the cartel is no longer worth while. These two factors are the death knell for OPEC+ and high price oil – the good times for the oil industry will never come back. The fall in demand because of COVID-19 is not the cause, it is only the trigger.
The ongoing US trade war against China will have deep longer term repercussions, independently of whether a trade deal is reached to end it. Had it only been a question of erratic actions by a lunatic president, the effects could have been limited. But Trump is not alone. The general mood in the US establishment is that China should be contained, or even rolled back. So the key-word is now ‘disentangling’ of the US economy from China.
The ongoing trade war that the US has unleashed against China will change the history of the 21st century, independently of whether an agreement is eventually reached between the parties or not. It signals the decision of the US to prevent China from growing into an economic superpower, using whatever means it has at hand. But this is an extremely dangerous and futile policy. China has more than four times the population of the US. As it develops, its economy will inevitably surpass the US. There is nothing the US can do to prevent that, so they will have to find out how best to live with it. Unfortunately, this is not how an important part of the US establishment sees it.
Foreign Affairs named in 2011 Russia “The dying bear”, pointing to the country’s high mortality and the low fertility. “Russia's economy doesn't produce anything that anybody wants to buy, except oil, gas and arms”, said ex-president Obama at his final news conference in 2016. “Vladimir Putin is a bigger threat than Isis”, according to Senator and ex-presidential candidate John McCain. And according to the actor Morgan Freeman, the US is now at war with Russia. But then everything should be fine. Russia is on its way down the drain. No people left, a useless economy, finished. Or are they once again underestimating their declared enemy?
“The Russian economy is in tatters”, said ex-president Barak Obama in his State of the Union Address in January 2015, and one year earlier he had described Russia as a “regional power”. The republican ex-presidential candidate senator John McCain said in March 2014 that Russia is “a gas station masquerading as a country”. “Lights our out for the Putin Regime”, “Is Putin’s Russia Headed for a Systemic Collapse?”, “Is Vladimir Putin’s big collapse coming soon?”, “The Achilles Heel of Putin’s Regime” - the list of dire predictions for Russia and the “Putin regime” from the last year or so is endless. But are they correct?
There have been good prices for commodities during the last decade: oil, gas, minerals, agricultural products. Now prices have plummeted. This implies a sea change as commodities are again a buyers' market, as it has been the case for most of the second half of the last century. It tips the correlation of forces in favour of the developed countries against the developing countries, which are generally heavily dependent of the export of commodities. But some developed countries are suffering too.
Independently of the outcome of the Paris Climate Change summit, big oil and coal have started an irreversible decline, facing the competition from renewable energies and an increasing political pressure to de-carbonize our societies. This changes completely the game and eliminates the incentive to reduce supply to get higher prices. In stead, the rush is now to exploit the oil and gas before it is too late. Who comes too late, loses. So OPEC has lost its power for good, and there is no chance it will get it back again.
Vladimir Putin has in the West become the symbol of all that we don't like. He is aggressive, authoritarian, brutal and untrustworthy, and he has ice-cold blue eyes, showing no feelings. The perfect villain for a James Bond movie. Unfortunately, he is also quite intelligent, competent and well formulated, and contrary to his ailing predecessors he has good health and is even sporty. Most Russians tend to think he is a better president than the ones they had before him. But how we are longing back to the days of our good old, corrupt, incompetent and drunk Boris Yeltsin.
Russia's risky decision to get directly involved in the Syrian civil war has been met with furious protests from the Western powers. BBC reports that NATO has urged Russia to end air strikes "on the Syrian opposition and civilians". But who is it that we want to defend against the Russians bombing raids? Are they the long sought for “moderate secular” opposition forces, which now are being destroyed by the Russian raids? Hardly.
The short answer is yes, very much so. And much more than it will hurt the EU or the US. Post-Soviet Russia is mainly a producer and exporter of oil, gas and raw materials. Just as Canada, Australia, Brazil, Chile and Venezuela. It has gone through a de-industrialisation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and is now heavily dependent on imports of almost everything. It is the world sixth biggest economy, but it is too small to survive isolated. So sanctions will hurt a lot. But they may also have unintended consequences. Some of them could actually be quite interesting.