Call it resource-politik: a new riff on the old notion of realpolitik -- this time, a power politics rooted in the pursuit of resource access. That's the common thread running through three developments in recent weeks involving Vladimir Putin's not-so-new "Novorossiya."
Secretary of State John Kerry has chided Russia's ruler on his retro turn to 19th Century politics, but the Great Game seems to be a perfectly workable way for Russia to pursue a 21st Century path toward something approximating its 20th Century heyday.
Putin may speak about protecting the rights of ethnic Russians wherever they may live, but his true goal may be securing the rights to what lies beneath the land he's seeking -- and the seabed around it. As the world assimilates to Russia's annexation of Crimea, pundits are noticing that Moscow's revanchism not only firms up the Russian Navy's warm-water access to the Mediterranean and beyond -- no more worries that Kiev will renege on its long-term lease for the Russian naval port at Sevastopol -- it transfers a huge swath of Ukraine's Black Sea seabed rights to Russia's column.
Prior to the annexation of Crimea, the peninsula gave Ukraine the largest share of a Black Sea Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), more than twice the size of Russia's. Post-Crimea, Ukraine's EEZ allotment shrinks by 80 percent, while Russia's slice nearly triples -- surpassing Turkey as the country with the largest Black Sea EEZ.
Among the seabed lost to Ukraine is an area containing four confirmed license blocks with natural gas and oil potential. According to energy expert Marika Karayianni:
"The economic stakes for Russia are very high, since the Crimean (oil and gas) fields will belong to the Russian continental shelf and any hydrocarbons found offshore Crimea will end up in Russian hands."
Ukraine's oil and gas is only one part of Russia's resource-politik. Long known as the "breadbasket of the Soviet Union," Ukraine's rich wheat fields -- signified by the yellow bar on its flag, under a broad blue sky -- are located in the western regions of the country, with the smallest Russian ethnic population. Ukraine's east and south, the regions where the Russian ethnic population is highest, happen to be home to the bulk of the country's metal and mineral resources. Should Russia succeed in swinging the eastern and southern provinces under its fold, Moscow will acquire the coal-rich Donets Basin, plus iron-ore and scandium deposits in Dnipropetrovsk. Ukraine also hosts one-fourth of the world's known manganese resources, second only to South Africa. When Ukraine left the Soviet Union in 1991, it took with it 75 percent of the USSR's manganese reserve -- including its leading deposit in Zaporizhia, due north of Crimea. Partition would bring this cornucopia of minerals back to Mother Russia.
Nor are signs of an emerging resource-politik confined to Ukraine. Take last week's blockbuster 30-year, $400 billion Russia-to-China natural gas deal. Russia and China have been talking about a deal for the past decade. Its conclusion now -- the contract was signed just four days before Ukraine's elections and 10 days before the threatened June 1 cutoff of Russian gas to Ukraine -- indicates that Russia is sending an unmistakable signal to Europe: Russian natural gas can be piped east to Asia as easily as it can flow west.
And this is only the beginning. Add in an incipient "natural gas OPEC," comprised of 11 nations under Moscow's leadership, with 75 percent of the production coming from Russia, Iran and Qatar -- a coalition, based on the current Freedom House rankings, of the Not-Free nations -- and Russia's resource-politik begins to take shape.
Moscow is even now trying out potential new messaging heralding its return to the world stage: Russia's state-run news recently floated a not-for-attribution report that Putin is considering selling Iran up to eight new nuclear reactors. What possible need could Tehran have for so much nuclear capability, when it's sitting on 90 years' worth of oil and 200 years' worth of natural gas?
All of these resource grabs befit a leader whose doctoral dissertation at the St. Petersburg Mining Institute -- whether it proves to be plagiarized or not -- bore the title: "Strategic Planning of the Reproduction of the Resource Base." Resource-politik may just be the Russian reset Vladimir Putin was looking for.