Oil Prices Fueling Russia's Disruption of U.S. Foreign Policy

Moscow has become a thorn in Washington’s side as rising oil prices give Russia ‘comfort zone’ to rebuild a superpower.

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Russia, once an old foe, is again proving to be a major obstacle for America's foreign interests, and will continue to be a thorn in the country's side as long as oil prices remain high.

Russian leaders have made the Obama administration's efforts to pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear weapon ambitions difficult at every turn. Moscow has also joined China in rejecting a U.N. measure that would strike a diplomatic blow to Syrian president Bashir al-Assad, frustrating White House officials.

The White House will also likely seek new, harsh sanctions against North Korea if it launches a long-range rocket that could one day be fitted with a nuclear weapon capable of hitting U.S. turf. But experts say again that Moscow—along with support from Beijing— will likely stand in the way.

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Russia's return to the fore as a check against America's global whims has escalated in recent months, as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was elected as President, and is setting his agenda for a third term.

U.S.-Russian relations returned to the front pages last week after Obama urged outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to "give me space" on several issues, including a European missile defense shield that Moscow opposes. Likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney soon after called Russia America's "top geopolitical enemy."

"Putin still aspires for Russia to be a superpower," says Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. "There are only two ways for Russia to achieve that: nuclear weapons, and oil and natural gas sales."

The price of a barrel of oil was nearly $105 at midday Tuesday, steadily climbing from a 52-week low of $76.35 per barrel in October. Oil prices began to rise in late 2010, peaking at $113 per barrel in May 2011, before dipping last summer and then rising again.

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Russia is the world's second-largest oil exporter at 5 million barrels a day, and its the ninth-leading natural gas exporter at 38.2 billion cubic meters a year, according to the CIA World Factbook. Russia rakes in nearly $500 billion annually in exports, with the CIA listing petroleum and natural gas as its top two commodities.

Frances Burwell, vice president of the Atlantic Council, says Russia's oil revenues "give it a comfort zone" from which its leaders feel they have the global cache to make things tough for Washington.

Burwell says she "places more weight" for Russia's recent global muscularity on "Putin's re-emergence." The Russian once-and-soon-again president "clearly sees playing the national card as the strong guy internationally benefits him," she says.

But, make no mistake, bloated national coffers from high oil and gas prices underwrite Putin's muscle-flexing, experts say.

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Putin made a number of big domestic promises during the presidential race, including plans to usher in sweeping pension and wage hikes. He also put forth "a rather ambitious military modernization program," Pifer says.

"If oil prices remain high, he might be able to do all of those things," Pifer says. "If prices come down, however, Putin will have some very tough decisions to make at home ... between guns versus butter."

Should oil and gas prices tumble, experts say Putin would likely pick butter.

"In 2007 when oil was doing well, Putin [as president] could have modernized the Russian military," says Pifer. Instead, Putin made a number of economic moves, such as the creation of a rainy day fund that was used during the recent global financial crisis," Pifer notes.

What's more, Putin returns to power with his sharp eyes locked on his opposition, which is composed of the country's urban, middle-class populations.

Experts agree that Putin would be hard-pressed to break his pension and wage promises in favor of a few more missiles. But even an economically weaker Russia would likely pick its spots to block Washington's desires.

"They have a very sovereigntist, non-interventionalist view of world affairs," Burwell says. That means Moscow fundamentally opposes Western efforts to boss around the world's strongmen, with which Russian leaders have much in common.