Marshall Goldman, a long-time student of Russia, says energy wealth and control over export pipelines have made Russia more powerful than at any time in its history. VOA's Barry Wood reports the Harvard University professor spoke at a forum Thursday in Washington.
Professor Goldman told the Jamestown Foundation that Russia's post-cold war power is built on its oil and gas resources. He said both eastern and western Europe have become dependent on Russia for oil and gas and that alternative supplies are not available. The recent boom in oil and gas prices, said Professor Goldman, has greatly boosted Russia's economic and political clout.
"I end up arguing, and I'm putting my neck out, that Russia is more powerful now than it ever was during the czarist era or the Soviet era," he noted. "In the Soviet era there was mutually assured destruction. They had nuclear weapons. We had nuclear weapons. We didn't use them, because we were worried they would and vice versa. Here you don't have that kind of restraint."
Goldman says Russia has a long history of using oil and gas as a foreign policy tool.
"In the Soviet era they cut off the flow of oil to Yugoslavia under Tito, to Israel after Sinai, to China after Mao broke away, to Cuba, to Finland, and more recently to Lithuania because there is a dispute over who is going to control the refinery there that Yukos is trying to sell," he explained.
Yukos is Russia's second largest oil company.
Goldman attributes much of President Vladimir Putin's popularity to the economic resurgence that the country is experiencing, in large part because of its energy exports. Russia now has the world's third largest foreign currency reserves, after China and Japan. Mr. Putin's re-nationalization of state assets and moves against the economic oligarchs who wielded enormous power under Boris Yeltsin have also been popular.
Professor Goldman says Russia's geographic position between Europe and Asia may make energy-hungry China vulnerable to Moscow, primarily because so many energy pipelines run through Russia.
"Just as the Europeans have become dependent on Russia for its gas, if the pipelines are built to China, the Chinese will become equally vulnerable," he added.
Russia, concludes Goldman, in just nine years has made an extraordinary transition from economic weakness to great strength. He credits President Putin with restoring national pride and ending the threat of political fragmentation within Russia.