Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Crimea River

Marin Katusa, The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped from America's Grasp

Remember summer of 2014, when Vladimir Putin’s swift, decisive action in Crimea channeled right-wing nostalgia for Reaganesque machismo in Guatemala and El Salvador? Global energy consultant Marin Katusa’s first book provides a TARDIS back to those days of manful moral absolutism. But now, as then, what appears efficacious in the near term demonstrates dire long-term consequences for both the invader and the invaded. Sadly, Katusa’s analysis, under two months after publication, is already badly outdated

Katusa mixes biography, recent history, and sociopolitical examination into, I concede, a fairly interesting analytical product. Despite periodic flashes like that surrounding recent Ukrainian protests and Putin’s store-bought invasions, post-Soviet Russia remains opaque to most American news-watchers. Most American news sources have no bureaus inside Russia itself, simply trusting Russian state-owned media sources to speak truthfully about themselves. American journalists substantially ignore Russia between flare-ups, even though Russia outsells Saudi Arabia on global petroleum markets.

Vladimir Putin, in Katusa’s account, provides the touchpoint transitioning Russia from post-Soviet anarchy and Yeltsin’s profound malaise, into a mostly modern state seriously challenging America and the EU for international status. Domestically, Putin utilizes personal charm, steady media manipulation, and nationalist fervor to maintain firm central control. Internationally, Putin’s hand on the taps of what some consider Earth’s largest petroleum, natural gas, and uranium reserves, gives him unprecedented capacity to blackmail world leaders into complicity.

Marin Katusa
I’ll buy that. However, that alone isn’t sufficient to support Katusa’s assertion that we’re witnessing the waning of what market watchers call the “petrodollar.” In my favorite passage from recent writing on social issues, Duncan J. Watts notes that many people who purpose to explain situations—economically, politically, artistically—instead merely describe them. Katusa, unfortunately, provides a prime example of this. Eager to pitch his own expertise, he completely fails to notice his personal viewpoint.

This book is the kind of sloppy wet kiss American conservative leaders blew Putin during the summer of 2014, when he challenged NATO in Crimea, and NATO flinched. Katusa admits he wrapped up writing “in midsummer 2014,” when Putin’s international prestige enjoyed its zenith. But by late 2014, declining demand, international opprobrium, and investor squeamishness broke Putin’s agenda. The ruble crashed in December, and American corporations fled, fearing repayment of legitimate debts in worthless paper.

Besides such sweeping categories, Katusa broadly writes without (we now know) complete command of the facts. His account of the Crimean annexation recounts Putin’s claim that no Russian troops abetted the rebellion, which Putin himself now admits was untrue. His analysis of global energy markets flatly excludes any possibility of significantly declining prices; many American markets, at this writing, enjoy the cheapest gasoline in twenty years. Katusa’s writing winds up looking like a time capsule.

I get frustrated with Katusa’s frequent omissions. Katusa never mentions Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Putin’s demonstrations of his will to alienate global allies to appease Russian nationalism. He never mentions Russia’s expulsion from the G8, with its resulting economic ostracism. He gives only one fleeting mention, and no critical scrutiny, to Russia’s strategic BRICS alliance, which, quite recently, bemoaned the dollar’s status as global reserve currency, undermining Katusa’s key claim about the dollar’s imminent obsolescence.

As Watts notes, we frequently cannot see every factor contributing to whatever situation we scrutinize. Katusa, a global energy consultant, sees everything in world energy market terms. Therefore, he doesn’t see how Putin placed all Russia’s eggs in one basket. Notice the cover illustration: Obama and Putin staring down above an oil well, against a sunset colored like nuclear fallout. Putin has energy reserves, useless without international buyers, and has cultivated no other economic backbone.

Personally, I support Brookings’ Bruce Jones. Russia may eventually dominate global energy commerce; China’s aggregate economy may eventually outstrip America’s; Germany, via the Eurozone, may eventually pinch international currency markets. But they lack clout to truly dominate world affairs. America may never regain Eisenhower-era global hegemony, but only America has sufficient might, moral force, and wealth to exercise real leadership. Let Putin play bush-league Rockefeller. His people can’t eat oil reserves. He still needs America.

Six months ago, capitalists like Katusa, and Republicans like Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, were all aflutter with admiration for Putin’s John Wayne lonerism. They praised his gumption and shoot-from-the-hip ethic. They extolled in Putin the characteristics, frankly, they once extolled in George W. Bush. But history may remember Autumn 2014 for Putin like it remembers Autumn 2007 for Bush, for largely the same reasons. Katusa’s book is ambitious, but just looks out of touch.

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