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Planning for Conflict?

Nick AmiesJanuary 14, 2009

The EU's diplomatic efforts in the Russia-Ukraine crisis may have focused on restoring the flow of gas but could it also have been trying to avoid a more ominous escalation as predicted by a Russian security document?

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Architects of a new Russian security strategy: Medvedev and PutinImage: AP

The latest gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine which once again hit European Union countries in the depths of winter prompted some intense shuttle diplomacy by leaders and officials from the supplier nation, the transit nation and the affected clients.

While the EU was mainly focused in its efforts to restart the flow of gas in a bid to reheat shivering member states on Russia's borders, the level of political involvement on Europe's part may have been motivated by other more sinister factors.

In June 2008, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a new security document entitled "Strategy of National Security of the Russian Federation until the Year 2020." Written under the direction of Nikolay Patrushev, secretary of the Kremlin's Security Council, the document reportedly sent tremors of concern through Western governments.

The document, which is expected to be adopted at a state council meeting on February 20, claims that Russia has overcome the "consequences of the systemic political and socioeconomic crisis of the late 20th century" and has now restored its capacity to promote its national interest through "multipolar international relations".

After predictably naming the United States as its main rival, the document then ominously describes how Russia may maintain its position in the world in future and raises the specter of future military conflict over energy resources.

Struggle for resources to take on military angle: report

Offshore drilling platform 'Astra' (in pic) is located at the Tyub-Karagan area of the Kazakhstan's sector of the Caspian Sea
The Caspian Sea is one area Russia wants access toImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"(Russia's) international policy will focus on the access to the energy sources of the world, including the Middle East, Barents Sea, the Arctic Region, Caspian Sea and Central Asia," it reads. "The struggle for the hydrocarbon resources can be developed to the military confrontation as well, which can result with violation of balance on Russia's borders with the allies and the increasing of the nuclear countries."

The document goes on to suggest that existing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Middle East, some of the South Asian and African countries, as well as in Korean peninsula "will have a continued negative impact on the international situation over the next 12 years."

The draft document's announcement allegedly led to a number of Western nations reviewing their energy security policies in relation to potential threats emanating from Russia. It is therefore understandable, if reports of these reviews are true, that the European Union was more concerned than usual when Russia and Ukraine entered into their latest dispute over gas.

Experts divided over possibility of actual gas wars

While the document assumes the possibility of future military conflicts erupting over energy resources, it has prompted widespread disagreement among academics and security experts who are divided over whether the term 'gas war', currently used to describe diplomatic spats, will eventually become a literal term.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, right, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Putin and Yuschenko in less fraught timesImage: AP

"I think it is worth worrying about the possibility of conflicts being fought over energy resources in the future but in the case of Russia and Ukraine, it's highly unlikely that this would have been the case," Daniel Litvin, senior research fellow with the Energy, Environment and Development Program at Chatham House, the headquarters of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, told DW-WORLD.DE.

"It's not in Russia's interests to go to war over its gas supplies. The dispute with Ukraine has already damaged its reputation as a provider and has been economically damaging as well," Litvin added. "Russia continued to be a strong and reliable supplier of both gas and oil during the Cold War when its enmity with the West was at its highest so I don’t think this will be happen."

Litvin believes that even though most governments consider war to be a last resort, there is always a slight chance that an escalation in tensions or a continued embargo lasting weeks or even months could prompt one country or another to consider a military solution. "This is why we have seen such intense diplomacy in the Russia-Ukraine dispute because the longer a disagreement of this seriousness goes on, the more desperate people can become," he said.

Claims that Caucasus conflict was first gas war

Some observers have suggested that the security strategy document has already prompted Russia's first military action in defense of its energy resources.

A column of Russian armored vehicles moving toward the border with North Ossetia
How big an issue was gas in the Caucasus conflict?Image: AP

During the August 2008 war in the Caucasus region, Russia accused Georgia of cutting gas to South Ossetia and it has been suggested that one of the objectives of the conflict was to secure pipelines in the region and to keep the gas flowing to the rebel republic. Russia has since floated the idea of a pipeline directly to South Ossetia, bypassing Georgia entirely.

"Some people say that all wars are about energy but I’m not in that camp," says Litvin. "The Middle East conflicts of the last few decades have almost certainly had an energy security dimension but I don't agree that these wars have been waged purely to secure resources.

"The Russia-Georgia war of last year most likely had a similar energy dimension -- considering the gas pipelines coming from Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea through Georgia and the fact that the West has been looking into alternatives to Russian energy -- but as with the war in Iraq, the security of resources was somewhere in the overall mix, not a main objective," he added.

Global competition for resources increases risk

A U.S. soldier looks through a pair of binoculars as a fire in the Rumeila oil field burns in the background in southern Iraq
Conflicts fought over resources could increaseImage: AP

While it remains unlikely that Russia and Ukraine will go to war over gas disputes in the immediate future, Russia's focus on maintaining access to global energy sources suggests that increased competition for decreasing reserves could lead to longer term confrontations, a scenario Daniel Litvin subscribes to.

"The securing of access to dwindling resources like oil in the Middle East and gas in Asia could bring China, the US, Europe and India into intense competition," he said.

"Military planning in many countries is already part of energy policy and military planners place high importance on energy security. We’re already seeing the early signs of increased competition in Africa where the US and China are looking to secure oil supplies and exert influence. As this level of competition intensifies in areas of the world where resources remain, we could see an increase in the militarization of the energy sector."