EURASIAN DAILY MONITOR
According to recent reports, over the course of 2018 the UK imported half of its liquefied gas from Russia. Three of the six LNG cargos delivered to British terminals since January came from Yamal LNG terminal, located north of the Arctic Circle. The Yamal LNG terminal is operated by JSC Yamal LNG, a joint-venture of Russia’s Novatek (50.1 percent), French Total (20 percent), China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC—20 percent), and the Chinese government–funded Silk Road Fund (9.9 percent) (Yamallng.ru, accessed March 20; Financial Times, March 14). Novatek has been subject to sanctions by the United States since 2014 (Treasury.gov, July 16, 2014).
Mark Gyetvay, the Chief Financial Officer for Novatek, complained in an interview to Bloomberg that Russian gas shipments were being stigmatized in Europe. Gyetyay added that Russian companies were “being vilified” for supplying gas to the UK (TASS, March 13).
Russia’s Energy Minister Aleksandr Novak called the UK prime minister’s statement on a possible decrease of Russian LNG imports a politically motivated decision. He further claimed, such a move by London would contradict competition rules in the European natural gas market. “Russia is supplying gas to Europe based on absolutely competitive terms and will continue operating within these terms,” Novak added (Neftegaz.ru, March 16).
The UK is less dependent on natural gas imports than much of Europe. However, domestic production from the North Sea has been declining since the early 2000s. As such, the UK has had to increasingly rely on natural gas imports via LNG terminals as well as via multiple pipelines connecting the British Isles with the European continent (Eia.gov, accessed March 20). In 2017, continental shelf production in the North Sea supplied 38 percent of the UK’s annual demand, 42 percent was met by imports from Norway, and 10 percent was pumped in via pipeline. Merely 4 percent of imported supplies last year were in the form of LNG (Ofgem.gov.uk, October 2017).
The first cargo of liquefied natural gas from the Yamal LNG terminal was delivered to the UK last December (The Telegraph, December 20, 2017). The UK required sharp increases in LNG imports due to the closure of the country’s largest gas storage facility, named Rough (Gov.uk, December 13, 2017). Last month, natural gas prices broke a 12-year record because of severe weather conditions coupled with technical problems observed at Norway’s gas field as well as coordination problems between UK gas terminals and the domestic gas and electricity operator National Grid. On March 1, National Grid announced that the United Kingdom is experiencing gas supply deficits for the first time in 8 years (Neftegaz.ru, March 16).
Last year, the UK became Europe’s second-largest importer of gas from Gazprom, behind only Germany. The UK imported 43 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas last year, of which Gazprom supplied 16 bcm via pipeline (Gazpromexport.ru, accessed March 20). Gazprom, which is not currently subject to United States or European sanctions, supplied 37 percent of Europe’s gas demand in 2017. In fact, Gazprom broke its own supply record both in 2016 and 2017, despite the European Union’s efforts to decrease its dependence on Russian gas imports by adopting new laws and improving EU infrastructure (Oxford Energy, March 2).
Surging shale gas production in the United States has so far failed to serve as an alternative to Russian gas in Europe. Although the US exported a record amount of LNG last December (Energy.gov, March 2018), only 13 percent of its cargo was delivered to Europe, and only one shipment went to the UK.
Some of these US liquefied gas volumes were delivered to countries such as Poland and Lithuania, which has certainly served to alleviate Russian dominance in this region. But US supplies are still far from a serious alternative to Russian gas for the following reasons: First, US LNG faces an uphill battle to compete with Russian pipeline gas. The fact that almost 75 percent of US LNG exports in 2017 went to Asia is a clear sign the Asian market is more attractive to US LNG shippers than the European market (Energy.gov, March 2018). Second, the dearth of infrastructure in landlocked parts of Europe, namely Central and Eastern Europe, makes it impossible to physically deliver LNG to many of these consumers. And finally, Russia has been adjusting its tactics to protect its market share in Europe. These tactics have included lowering prices for its gas, working on boosting its LNG exports, investing in coastal infrastructure and development projects in northern and southern Europe, as well as actively trying to diversify its export outlets to the European continent. Thus, for now, Russia’s position as a gas supplier to Europe will not be easily dislodged by international competitors.
On January 16, the Russian market-research firm GfK presented a report that provided essential data on the spread of Internet use in Russia (Gfk.com, January 16). According to this analysis, in the beginning of 2018, the number of Internet users among Russian adults (16 years of age and above) reached 87 million—a 3 million increase in comparison with the previous year. In his comment, Sergey Ketov, the head of the GfK research branch, pointed out that for the past two years, the number of people using mobile devices has grown by 36 percent. The most important detail in the analysis concerns the segment of young Internet users. The report states that approximately 98 percent of young Russians have near-to-regular access to the Internet. Experts suggest this demonstrates that the percentage of young Russians regularly using the Internet has reached its absolute maximum in Russian history (the trend became particularly visible after 2014).
This impressive growth is related to the rising number of users who employ smartphones (currently, 51.5 percent of adult Russians utilize such devices) to maintain regular Internet access (Gfk.com, January 16). At the same time, another aspect should not be omitted: the growing popularity of online social networks in Russia.
According to available information, in 2017 the daily audience of the most popular network, VKontakte—banned in some countries for its alleged ties to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and for spreading pirated content (see EDM, June 7, 2017)—was approximately 70 million people (Vkhelpnik.com, accessed March 17, 2018). Other networks that enjoy popularity in Russia include Facebook, Odnoklassniki, Instagram and Twitter (Zonkservice.ru, accessed March 18). This suggests that the number of young Russians accessing various social networks on a day-to-day basis (and spending their free time on registered accounts) has grown exponentially.
In this regard, the Russian Ministry of Defense has notably implemented a program that aims to trace the activities of incoming soldiers (mainly draftees) on various online social networks. Specifically, Russian military psychologists will be tasked with assessing the online activities of future soldiers. Reportedly, this will become one of several “projective” screening methods (proyektivny metodiki)—also including individual conversations and detailed analysis of personal characteristics—that are to deliver exhaustive information about the draftees’ psychological profile. Sources also claim that this method will help to ascertain personal motivations, responsiveness to stress, social behavior and mode of action under rapidly changing circumstances. This is to enable specialists to construct all-encompassing psychological portraits for incoming soldiers and come up with specific recommendations for junior officers on how best to work with the new conscripts (Rossaprimavera.ru, January 9).
The experiment was first tried in the Russian Far East (Mil.ru, January 9), a distant region that, since 2014, has become one of the main places where Russia’s Armed Forces routinely test out various innovative military techniques. In particular, the multifaceted psychological profile–building experiment was first conducted in the Amur, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast and Khabarovsk Krai. The defense ministry noted that, in accordance with the results obtained by military psychologists and sociologists, 98 percent of soldiers (23,000 draftees were analyzed) “are entering the Russian Armed forces with joy and great pleasure” (Mil.ru, January 14). Of course, such cited data should be approached with a good deal of skepticism. The legacy of the Soviet experience and established patterns of official reporting, especially in the domain of propaganda, quickly come to mind, after all. However, there is every reason to believe that the general perception of the Armed Forces among the predominant proportion of young Russians has undergone a profound transformation in recent years and is no longer associated primarily with hazing and a lack of order (akin to the 1990s and the early 2000s).
In many ways, this change of perception was prompted by skillful propaganda employed by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Namely, demonstrations of Russian military might in the course of large-scale military exercises, regional conflicts (like the “Five Day War” with Georgia) and especially Russian military involvement in the Syrian civil war played a decisive role in shifting popular attitudes.
Another essential element must not be ignored: the Russian military has realized the growing importance of online social networks (and professionally made video clips) as a powerful means of propaganda. For instance, during the Vostok 2014 strategic military exercises, the Russian defense ministry posted video clips and updates to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube in order to demonstrate Russia’s immense military potential (Sovsekretno.ru, September 30, 2014). Interestingly enough, aside from weapons and simulated battlefield maneuvers, the defense ministry’s posted messages regularly featured examples of “military routine,” such as social and joint cultural events. The inclusion of Twitter and Instagram in 2014 (at the time not yet particularly popular among Russian Internet users) as well as YouTube was done primarily to attract international attention and demonstrate the new image of the Russian Armed Forces to other countries.
Turbulent developments in the Middle East (foremost the “Arab Spring”) have demonstrated that online social networks could become more dangerous to ruling regimes than conventional weapons. Increasingly, tapping this resource will provide Russia’s defense ministry with the ability to analyze its incoming human material, attract more soldiers and popularize military service, as well as tackle public perceptions of the Armed Forces.
Two major changes in the region are critical to understanding what is happening there. First, Shavkat Mirziyaev, the new president of Uzbekistan, who heads the largest and potentially dominant state in the area, has taken a new approach. Specifically, he has sought cooperation rather than conflict with his neighbors (see EDM, September 18, 2017; January 17, 2018; March 12, 2018), which is significantly reducing the kinds of intra-regional conflicts outsiders had long exploited. Second, Kazakhstan, also for the first time, is playing as a Central Asian country rather than as an outlier between that region and Russia.
It is worth recalling that in Soviet times, Moscow always referred to the region as “Central Asia and Kazakhstan.” That terminology reflected the longstanding Russian policy of divide and rule: Kazakhstan could not be a Central Asian country except at the risk of losing its ethnically Russian north; and Central Asia could not unite unless Kazakhstan was part of it and served as a counterweight to Uzbekistan’s power. Now, however, the ethnic-Russian share of Kazakhstan’s population has fallen from a plurality to less than a quarter. And Nursultan Nazarbayev, as he ages, increasingly seeks to put his country on track to be a powerful, independent and Kazakh-centric state—one with a Latin script rather than a Russian one (see EDM, April 25, 2017; March 5, 2018) and displacing Russia as a transport hub between Europe and Asia (see EDM,January 14, 2014; May 20, 2015; November 17, 2017). Therefore, Moscow’s old calculation that it could continue to dictate that Kazakhstan is not a part of the rest of Central Asia—a notion that was often accepted by both the West and China—has collapsed.
Those two developments further coincide with changes in the broader international environment. China continues to pursue investment and influence in Central Asia, especially in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan; but Russia, because of its crisis, and the United States, because of its own concerns, are devoting far less attention to the region and its countries than they did earlier. Moscow largely assumes that this landlocked region, with all its problems, including a burgeoning population, security threats from Afghanistan and Islamist movements, and the continuing need for transfer payments from guest workers in the Russian Federation, will ultimately come back into Russia’s orbit. While Washington’s mindset appears to be that the region is far from the United States and its current “America first” policies.
Last week, for the first time since 2005, the leaders of the five countries—four presidents and the head of Turkmenistan’s parliament—met in Astana to discuss cooperation and integration. The tone of the meeting was set by its host, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who declared that “in order to solve the problems of Central Asia, we do not need any third persons. We ourselves can resolve all questions, and that is why we are meeting” (Turan Today, March 15).
Nazarbayev and his colleagues were careful not to name the outsiders—Moscow, Washington and Beijing—on whom they no longer want to be dependent. And it is unlikely that any of the five Central Asian regimes can break away cleanly from all three or any one of them anytime soon: geography, history and culture work against that. But the meeting and the Kazakhstani president’s declaration represent a likely turning point for the region. As such, they challenge not only the outside powers but the five regional countries themselves to find new ways for a modus vivendi. And Nazarbayev made clear that all this was happening primarily because of what the new president of Uzbekistan has been doing.
“In the course of a single year, from March of last year, all the presidents of the region have conducted bilateral meetings.” As Nazarbayev stressed, the result of “the enormous work” by Uzbekistan’s Mirziyaev has been to “[unfreeze] many of the problems that have built up over the last 20 years.” Moreover, the Kazakhstani head of state praised Mirziyaev for coming up with the idea of having the meeting in Astana itself (Uzbekistan’s president proposed doing so last September, during the session of the United Nations General Assembly). In recent months, Central Asian officials have been exploring how to achieve this goal. Now it has happened, sparking apprehension in Moscow. Russian authorities view this as yet another attempt by these former Soviet states to exit the post-Soviet space. And they blame the West and China for this growing trend, even as some in Beijing and even Washington are concerned about the meaning for them of a common Central Asian “front” (RBC, March 15).
At the close of the summit, the five Central Asian leaders announced that they would convene again in Tashkent a year from now and in the intervening period would create a five-sided working commission, at the deputy prime minister level, to support cooperation. Obviously, such meetings by themselves will not change everything: they cannot trump geography or history. But this type of cooperation means that there will increasingly be a new player on the board in this region, one Moscow, Beijing and Washington will all have to take into consideration.