Ukraine: Challenging the pipelines narrative

March 11, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

As a former correspondent in Kiev, Moscow and Georgia at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and as someone who has an ongoing interest in events in the former Soviet space, I would maintain that the attempt to link the Ukraine conflict with pipelines and natural resources is highly debatable. There are of course pipelines running through Ukraine transporting oil and gas from Russia to the West, and Crimea currently gets its oil, gas and much of its water from pipelines that flow from Ukraine, so they are important, but the idea that these pipelines, and natural resources in general, are in some way the cause of this conflict seems to me to be unfounded.

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Most Moscow-watchers agree this conflict is about the limits of the Russian sphere of influence, the anxiety of Russia as it watches NATO and the EU expand up to its front door and stupid moves by the new Ukrainian government such as the dropping of the new language law. It’s about Russian pride, Putin’s vision of a Greater Russia, and Washington’s desire to keep pushing their views even when their interests are not really affected. It’s about competing nationalisms and Ukrainian clumsiness or worse.

Natural resources and pipelines are not causes, they are merely potential weapons – although who would actually win by using them can be hard to pin down. For example, Ukraine could stop Russia exporting gas to the West, or cut off gas and water to Crimea, but then Russia would close the stopcocks at the Ukrainian border thereby closing down Ukrainian businesses and making life unbearable in Ukrainian homes. Alternatively Russia could stop pumping gas to Ukraine, but then they would reduce their petro-euro earnings in Europe.

Most far-fetched of all is the idea that this conflict is in some way about Persian Gulf oil.

One article last week said Crimea would face difficulties without its connections to Ukraine. True, but those problems will be temporary and far fewer than the problems Ukraine is likely to experience. If Russia annexes Crimea, Crimea will, in time, be fine in terms of natural resources – just like Abkhazia and South Ossetia eventually were when they exited Georgia/were annexed by Russia. It may take a while, but Moscow will build a new bridge over the Kerch Strait that will carry water, oil, gas, goods, Russians and weapons. Until then the resources will arrive by boat and plane.

Ukraine, by contrast, will have enormous natural resource problems. Or rather Ukraine will have more problems than it already does because it has no natural resources except agricultural land.

A post-script on Crimea…
Of course, arguably Crimea is no more Russian than it is Ukrainian. The Cimmerians, Bulgars, Greeks, Scythians, Goths, Huns, Khazars, the state of Kievan Rus’, Byzantine Greeks, Kipchaks, Ottoman Turks, Golden Horde Tatars and the Mongols have all controlled Crimea. In the 13th century, it was partly controlled by the Venetians and by the Genoese. A Crimean Khanate emerged in the 15th century, which came under the protection of the Ottoman Empire until the 18th century when it became part of the Russian Empire. During the Russian Civil war it changed hands several times and was a stronghold and last stand of the anti-Bolshevik White Guard. From there it became part of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic until Germany invaded during the Second World War. After the Germans were kicked out and Stalin had died, Crimea was transferred by Khrushchev to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, where it stayed until becoming part of independent Ukraine with the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Ukraine flag on painted on cracked wall via shutterstock. Reproduced at with permission.

Tags: geopolitics, pipeline politics, Russia, ukraine