Can Russia imagine a post-fossil fuel future?
No post-fossil future is imagined for Russia, least of all by the Russians. The kleptocrats flee the country and stash their bounty in safe havens, countries with confidential banking, enough rule of law to avoid the confiscation of their spoils, and pliable politicians to provide protection. The export of capital and the purchase of expensive houses and other assets outside Russia reveal that large parts of its ‘economic elite’ do not think they will stay in power for long.
The economic era of fossil energy will end, and petro-states will decline with it. Advances in energy efficiency, renewable energies, storage, and smart energy management systems have made a new, clean, safe, and sustainable energy supply cheaper than nuclear and fossil energy. Fast technology learning keeps pushing down the cost of the new energy and driving out coal, oil, and fossil methane gas. The value of Russia's fossil exports will fall faster than the volume, depriving the country of earnings and its robber elite of spoils. Maintaining current power structures will become ever harder, and repression can only get worse.
In 2016, Russia stated that it now wants to invest in its post-fossil future and build up a wind power industry. But without a civilian innovation system, and even if all the prowess of its aerospace industry is harnessed, no one expects Russia to catch up with the highly competitive, established global wind power industry. Nor would Russia be able to match the advances in material research in solar power or battery storage, or take on the relatively easy challenge of developing cheap but smart, low-voltage direct-current power supply systems that can work off the grid. The post-fossil energy structure will either be imported or mired in technical deficiencies and inefficiency.
Russia has no Bankable Value Proposition for the Post-Fossil Age.
After the fossil age, Russia will still have assets: a stash of gold, an active metals and mining industry, military might, and spies and hackers. After being a petro-state, Russia may become a mining company with an army and nuclear weapons, still under the resource curse. Innovation will be confined to strategic but marginal areas, notably in the art of hacking for gain, an essentially parasitic activity. Russia can export instability, perhaps leading to mayhem, but that does not add value overall; it has no bankable project for the post-fossil age.
Russia's military, with its ageing hardware, is stretched by domestic trouble in Chechnya, a garrison in Transnistria, wars of occupation in Georgia and Ukraine, and the drain of military intervention to prop up Bashar al-Assad in Syria, to name but a few areas of engagement. That hampers investment in a positive future and accelerates the decline of the country. Hybrid warfare combining military and non-military assets and skills, an area pioneered by Russia, can slow but not halt the demise.
In the new geopolitics of renewable energy, post-fossil Russia does not have a value proposition. Its stoic society, infected with nationalism, lacks inclusive diversity and the attractions of open societies in the West, or the promise of development of China or India. With few citizens brave enough to contest ill-conceived policy ideas and the suppression of dissent, the country cannot avoid making mistakes. Russia is in demographic decline as its population succumbs to alcohol, bad health care, and early death. Those who can, milk the country and send their sons and daughters abroad; Vladimir Putin himself has set this example. Emigration is a staple of life planning for many of those who Russia needs to stay.
"L'empire éclaté": Almost 40 years after Hélène Carrère d'Encausse's analysis predicted the collapse of the Soviet empire, we can now foresee the post-fossil decline of Russia. It won't be pleasant, and Russia's neighbourhood won't be safe. All other countries should prepare for increasingly erratic behaviour, an erosion of statehood at Russia's centre and periphery, and a heightened risk of military confrontation, accidental or otherwise. Oil addiction is hard to cure, and Russia is not even trying.
A version of this article was published in Spanish in the yearbook of the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB): http://anuariocidob.org/puede-rusia-imaginar-un-futuro-post-combustibles-fosiles/
Header image: istock/XtockImages
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