Russia Grabs Ukraine’s Offshore Oil & Gas Treasure
Russian control over the Crimean Peninsula would create a brand new situation regarding the oil and gas market
The Ukrainian revolution is the greatest challenge of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reign. The escalating conflict in the Crimean Peninsula has created a dilemma for Moscow in the last few days. But besides playing out the Russian nationality card (previously known from Ossetia), there are more serious justifications behind the Crimean situation: the question of Russian control over a significant portion of Black Sea oil and gas, and the fact that South Stream may also take a new route.
The policing of the renitent neighbour, which is being justified as protection of the local Russian minority, can almost be seen as a routine step from Moscow, as it did the same to Georgia in 2008. However, in the case of Ukraine, we are talking about a substantially more serious situation, and not only considering the country’s size. Undoubtedly there is a large Russian minority living in Ukraine, nevertheless the known pragmatism of Vladimir Putin rather indicates an economic rationale behind the Russian intervention.
Concerning security of supply of natural gas, Moscow and Brussels rightfully fear for the Ukrainian pipelines. But the cradle of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict will not be the Ukrainian pipeline system, but the Crimean Peninsula. Beside the fact that the peninsula is 60% inhabited by Russians, it is also the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea fleet, underlining Sevastopol’s strategic military importance. The territory was under Russian authority until 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union at the time, gave it back to Ukraine on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, and currently it is an integrant part of the Republic of Crimea.
Russian control over the Crimean Peninsula – beside the fact that it would solve the ethnic problem and the question of the fleet – would create a brand new situation regarding the oil and gas market, because the stakes are high: if Crimea falls under Russian authority, Russia will be able to greatly expand its borders in the Black Sea, among others, to the three enormous oil and gas field that can be found next to Crimea.
Furthermore, there is a tremendous amount of gas under the shallow waters of the Sea of Azov, as there are fields with great potential to the southeast and to the west of Crimea as well. Each one of the hydrocarbon locations can be found on the shallow continental shelf, which has the advantage of the significantly cheaper extraction of the oil and gas there, compared to the deeper parts of the Black Sea.
American and Italian companies have concessions in these territories, but their terms were made with the Ukrainian state, and the creation of a Russian enclave similar to Kaliningrad would create a rather sensitive legal situation. Additionally, the Ukrainian leadership knows well the importance of these territories, as beside the unconventional terrestrial utilization of natural gas, the Black Sea locations form one of the keystones of their energy strategy. So Kiev will fight for the Crimean Peninsula tooth and nail, not only because of its sovereignty, but because of its hydrocarbon treasures as well.
Beyond the hydrocarbon potential that lies under the ground, we can mention the other geopolitical concern related to the Crimean conflict, which is the South Stream pipeline. Gazprom’s pipeline would transfer Russian gas to the European market through Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary and Slovenia, avoiding Ukraine. The weakest point of the pipeline – beside the conflict caused by the Third Energy Package of the EU – is the terribly expensive Black Sea section, where the pipelines must be placed in the deepest parts of the Black Sea, at great additional expense compared to positioning on a shallow shelf.