Lawrence Solomon: Russia’s rise — a threat to the West

(November 8, 2013) America’s demise in the Middle East has made Russia the region’s preeminent power, and a threat to the West.

By Lawrence Solomon for the National Post, published on November 8, 2013

Oil is the most strategic of commodities and the Middle East is the most strategic of regions. That’s why Winston Churchill locked up Iran’s oil for the British Empire prior to World War I. That’s why FDR secured Saudi oil for the United States prior to the Second World War. That’s why the West had the energy needed to weather the Cold War following the Second World War.

And that’s why, as the United States stumbles into a new Cold War against Russia and its allies, Vladimir Putin is obtaining Russian influence over Saudi oil, along with most of the other strategic energy fields in the region.

The sea change in the Middle East stems from President Obama’s betrayal during the Arab Spring of its long-time ally, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, a close friend and ally of the Saudis. If the Americans could so quickly abandon a loyal ally of decades standing, the Saudis asked themselves, what confidence could they have that America would treat them any better? Seeing President Obama fail to confront the nuclear weapons program of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s chief threat, and seeing him retreat from his vow to punish Iran’s ally, Syria, for its use of chemical weapons, confirmed Saudi Arabia’s assessment that the U.S. and the West cannot be trusted.

To register its disgust, the Saudis last month announced a “major shift” away from the U.S., punctuating its rebuke by offering to purchase Russian arms and by refusing to accept a seat at the UN’s Security Council, an unprecedented and explicit stick in the U.S. eye. And in an equally consequential move, the Saudis have encouraged the Egyptians – who are as outraged at what they consider Obama’s perfidy – to also shift their allegiance away from the U.S. and toward Russia, a country with a more steadfast record toward its allies.

The Saudis, along with oil powerhouses Russia and Iran, could use their energy leverage to destabilize the West

President Putin, who has offered to provide Egypt with any arms the U.S. refuses to provide, will soon visit Egypt to announce an arms deal that may also include the building of a major naval base in Egypt for Russia’s ever expanding Mediterranean fleet, now 16-strong and the largest in its history. Russian warships now patrol the energy-rich waters off Libya, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus, where Russia is also acquiring business stakes. With a permanent base in Egypt, the Russians will likewise be able to exercise control over the Suez Canal, to which the U.S. now has privileged access for military needs, and through which much of Europe’s oil flows.

With the major oil producers of Saudi Arabia and Iran in Russia’s sway, along with militarily important Egypt and Syria, Russia has emerged as the preeminent power in the Middle East, wielding more clout there than it ever had in its history, and more than the U.S., now viewed contemptuously as a “paper tiger” by all Arab and Muslim parties in the region. Israel, too, viewing the U.S. as an unreliable partner, is hedging its bets by strengthening ties with Russia – Russia now purchases Israeli military technology and has a stake in Israel’s major Mediterranean gas finds.

Russia’s return to the Middle East not only helps right what Putin views as “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century” – the Soviet Union’s collapse – it also threatens the security and economy of the West. In the past, the Saudis could be counted on to cushion the West by acting as a “swing producer” – increasing oil production as needed to moderate oil prices, stabilize economies, and even ease fears of crisis. Now the potential arises that the Saudis, along with oil powerhouses Russia and Iran, could at some point use their energy leverage to destabilize the West.

Even in the absence of such extraordinary events, Russia will have more of a stranglehold than ever over its largely captive energy market – Europe, a continent that now depends on imports to meet roughly half of its energy needs, that has so far been unwilling to surmount environmental opposition to developing its own energy resources, and that in 20 years time is expected to rely on imports for 70% of its needs. Those imports are expected to come from Russia and its Middle East allies, making Europe increasingly beholden to a Russian sphere of influence. North America will be blissfully energy independent but, barring a reversal of European attitudes or Russia’s fortunes in the Middle East, increasingly impotent and irrelevant on the world stage.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe.

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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