Joseph Sywenkyj for The New York TimesMOSCOW — Whatever the eventual outcome of the Arab world’s social upheaval, there is a clear economic winner so far: Vladimir V. Putin. Fears About Oil in Mideast and Libya Pay Off Nicely for Russia
Joseph Sywenkyj for The New York Times
Oil treatment facilities at Priobskoe oilfield in Khanty-Mansi, Russia. Russian officials say that spare capacity is too hard to maintain in their far northern country due to the extreme cold. MOSCOW — Whatever the eventual outcome of the Arab world’s social upheaval, there is a clear economic winner so far: Vladimir V. Putin.
Related Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, center, applauded at the signing ceremony by Christophe de Margerie, left, chief executive of Total, and Leonid Mikhelson, chief executive of Novatek, for a natural gas deal last week.
Russia, which pumps more oil than Saudi Arabia, is reaping a windfall from the steep rise in global energy prices sparked by instability in oil regions of the Middle East and North Africa. Riding the high oil prices, the Russian ruble has risen faster against the dollar this year than any other currency, which is helpful because it will curb consumer inflation during an election year.
Russian stocks are buoyant, too: The Micex index closed last week at 1,781, up nearly 6 percent since the beginning of the year.
But the Russians cannot step in to offset any big drop in global production — if that happened — because Russia does not have any oil wells standing idle that would allow it to increase production. Right now Russia is pumping oil at its top capacity.
But at Monday’s closing price of $114, the price of each of those barrels of Ural crude, the country’s main export blend, has risen 24 percent since the beginning of the year.
Last week, the prime minister, Mr. Putin, sat down for a televised meeting with Russia’s finance minister, Aleksei L. Kudrin, which was nationally televised on state news channels for the public’s enlightenment as the two discussed, just short of gloating, the benefits to Russia of a global oil panic.
“Mr. Kudrin, budget revenues have become considerable,” Mr. Putin said matter-of-factly.
Mr. Kudrin agreed, noting that if prices hold Russia will be able to resume contributions to its sovereign wealth funds for the first time since the summer of 2008, when the global recession began.
One of those sovereign investment vehicles, the Reserve Fund, could reach $50 billion by the end of the year, Mr. Kudrin reported. Just a few months ago Russian officials planning the 2011 budget had anticipated the fund would be depleted.
“Good,” Mr. Putin responded to Mr. Kudrin’s account, nodding with satisfaction.
Russia, of course, does not have to look back farther than 2008 to see that a spike in the price of oil can be just that — followed by a dizzying drop. But for now, Russian energy is in favor.
Russia’s perceived stability was a reason the French energy giant Total cited last week in agreeing to buy about 12 percent of an independent natural gas producer in Russia, Novatek, and join a liquefied natural gas project in the Russian Arctic.
“The upheavals taking place in a number of the oil and gas producing countries now send a signal to investors to come to Russia,” Total’s chief executive, Christophe de Margerie, said in a meeting with President Dmitri A. Medvedev announcing the deal.
Mr. Margerie said his company was committing about $4 billion to the venture. “Russia offers a much safer environment for investment,” he said.
Oil experts say that because global production capacity for oil is still far larger than world demand, the run-up in prices is being fueled by fear more than by reality. The concern is that the violence in Libya could spread to other member states of the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries, which are primarily Arab nations.
Russia is not only outside OPEC, and thus free from the cartel’s production restraints, but also, with its formidable secret police apparatus and a population bulge among the elderly rather than the young, is seen as less vulnerable to an outbreak of social unrest.
Russia has long jockeyed against Saudi Arabia, a member of OPEC, to be the world’s top oil-producing nation. Although the Saudis have more production capacity and vastly more reserves, Russia is pumping more oil. And if oil and natural gas are considered together, Russia is the largest energy exporting nation.
Which country is in first place for oil at any given moment depends on how the Saudis wield their swing production capacity, the cushion of unused wells and pipelines the Saudis can turn on to tamp down global prices. As the biggest OPEC member, Saudi Arabia is the cartel’s enforcer and enabler, with the power to influence global prices or to moderate global disruptions by how much of its production capacity it chooses to put to work.
If the Saudis open the valves during periods of instability on the market, Russia falls into second place as a producer — but still makes a healthy profit off higher prices.
Russia has little incentive to invest in spare capacity — in part because being outside the OPEC cartel gives it less direct ability to influence prices through the ebb and flow of production. If anything, a large idle capacity by Russia would work against its financial interests — by acting as market insurance, and thus holding prices down — during periods of instability in the Middle East.
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