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Saudi Arabia and Russia close to freezing oil production

Joint Russian – Saudi statement on oil production and prices suggests despite vague language movement towards a temporary oil production freeze, though impact on oil prices likely to be small.

Alexander Mercouris

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Talks between the Russians and the Saudis at the G20 summit in Hangzhou once again raised hopes throughout the oil industry of a Russian – Saudi agreement for an oil production freeze.

Russia, Saudi Arabia and the US are the three big oil producers, producing roughly similar quantities of oil in any given year.  Of these three countries Saudi Arabia, since it is not a significant oil consumer, has the single biggest role in the oil market, a position further consolidated by its de facto leadership of OPEC – the international oil producers’ cartel – and the oil producing Gulf States.

In 2014 as oil prices began to slide, to the surprise and disappointment of many in the oil industry, Saudi Arabia refused to cut its output to create an artificial shortage in the oil market to support prices.  On the contrary the trend throughout 2015 was for Saudi oil production to rise.  The Saudis instead insisted that the market would eventually rebalance itself as more expensive output was shelved because of low prices.

Contrary to the expectations – and hopes – of many in the oil industry, the Saudis have stuck to this position ever since.

One particular phantom that has flickered with tedious regularity throughout this affair is the hope that if the Saudis will not cut production themselves, they will at least come to some sort of arrangement with the other big oil exporter – Russia (the US despite the size of its production being a net importer of oil) – to rebalance the market. 

The original grounds for this hope were comments by the Saudis at the time of the OPEC summit in November 2014 that they would not cut production because they could not rely on the other big producers – first and foremost Russia – also doing so.

The Russians for their part have consistently said they will not cut production to rebalance the market, and that that is something for Saudi Arabia to do.  They have also said that it would be technically impossible for them to cut production during the winter months since the cold weather in Russia would cause their Siberian wells to freeze.  This explanation is widely ridiculed, though it is in fact perfectly plausible given the harsh conditions of the Siberian winter.

Whilst the Russians have consistently ruled out an oil production cut, they have been open to the idea of an oil production freeze, and in the first few weeks of this year talks between them and the Saudis to achieve this seemed for a time to be going well. 

The background to those talks was a temporary crash in oil prices, which briefly fell to low of $25 a barrel.  What however seems to have prompted these talks was a tour of oil producers in the first few weeks of 2016 by the Oil Minister of Venezuela who was furiously lobbying for an output cut on behalf of his severely cash-strapped government. 

Whilst neither the Saudis nor the Russians were in the mood to talk about a production cut, the Venezuelan Oil Minister’s lobbying does seem to have prompted them to talk to each other about the possibility of a freeze.

In the event talks between the Russians and the Saudis and other oil producers appeared in April 2016 to have come to the brink of reaching agreement on an oil production freeze, with the text of an agreement prepared and ready for signature at an oil producers’ summit in Doha. 

Then to everyone surprise, at the very last moment, the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince, Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, suddenly reversed Saudi Arabia’s position, and abruptly ordered the Saudi delegation – which was about to sign the agreement – home

The Deputy Crown Prince’s reason was that Iran, whose oil industry had just been freed from the effect of UN sanctions which had previously limited its production and ability to sell oil, was in the process of bringing more oil onto the market, allowing Iran to benefit from a Russian – Saudi production freeze by capturing part of Saudi Arabia’s market share. 

Underlying this of course is the ongoing geopolitical duel between Iran and the Saudis in the Middle East, which makes any agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran on any subject, including oil prices and production, extremely difficult.

The meeting between Russian President Putin and the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince during the G20 summit in Hangzhou seems to have raised hopes amongst oil industry insiders that this time – with the Deputy Crown Prince directly involved in the talks – an agreement between Russia and Saudi Arabia for an oil production freeze to rebalance the oil market would finally be reached. 

In the days that followed the meeting in Hangzhou comments by certain Russian and Saudi oil industry officials did appear to hold out the promise of an agreement for an oil production freeze.  Thus Russian Energy Minister Aleksandr Novak after meeting Saudi officials in Hangzhou was reported to have said

“We have agreed with the Saudi Arabia energy minister on joint action aimed at stabilizing the situation in the oil market. We consider a production freeze the most efficient tool, concrete parameters are being discussed at the moment.”

Novak is also reported to have said that Saudi Arabia was considering freezing production for one to three months at the levels of July, August or September.

Saudi Oil Minister Khalid Al-Falih for his part is reported to have said

“I have to say all other producers are expressing interest in coordinating… with Saudi Arabia and other like-minded countries to reach a consensus.  We are optimistic the Algiers meeting will provide a forum, and pre-Algiers consultations taking place bilaterally and in groups will bring us to Algiers with some sort of coordinated decisions. But the two countries agree that even if there is no consensus, we will be willing to take joint action when necessary.”

The reference to the meeting in Algiers is to a meeting of the International Energy Forum, which is due to take place later in September in that city.

In the event the joint Russian – Saudi statement on oil production and prices which appeared after the talks proved to be something of a damp squib.  It contained no reference to an oil production freeze.  The closest it came to discussing that possibility was in the following paragraph

“The Ministers recognizer the current challenges in the supply side of the global oil market, including major contraction of capital investments in oil extraction on a global scale, particularly in exploration, as well as mass deferrals of investment projects, which made the market, as a whole, more volatile and therefore unsustainable to both producers and consumers in the long term. There is an imperative to mitigate excessive volatility harmful to global economic stability and growth. In this regard, the Ministers noted that constructive dialogue and close cooperation among major oil producing countries is crucial to oil market stability to ensure sustainable levels of investment for the long term. Therefore, the Ministers agreed to act jointly or with other producers. In addition, the Ministers agreed to continue consultations on market conditions by establishing a joint monitoring task force to continuously review the oil market fundamentals and recommend measures and joint actions aimed at securing oil market stability and predictability.”

This is not an agreement for an oil production freeze.  It is simply a statement of platitudes amounting to nothing more than a wish-list.  Not a single concrete proposal appears anywhere in it, with some oil industry analysts not surprisingly calling it “all talk and no action”.

The likelihood nonetheless remains that some sort of oil production freeze – lasting however no more than a few weeks – will be agreed in Algiers, especially as comments from the Iranian Oil Minister suggest that Iran might now also be willing to join in.

No one should however expect a brief production freeze lasting no more than 3 months at most to have any significant impact on oil prices. 

As I have said many times, the two factors that determine the level of oil prices are (1) monetary policy in the US, which has a direct impact on the oil price because oil is traded in US dollars; and (2) supply and demand. 

An oil production freeze of a few weeks might have some marginal impact on supply.  It cannot influence the effect on oil price movements caused by US monetary policy.  This is key since it was the tightening of US monetary policy in the summer of 2014 with the ending of QE, leading eventually to the rise in interest rates in December 2015, which was the single biggest factor causing oil prices to fall.

Why then, if the effect of an oil production freeze on oil prices can only be minimal, are the Russians and the Saudis even talking about one? 

The answer has been provided by Omar Al-Ubaydli, who is a programme director at the Bahrain Center for Strategic, International and Energy Studies as well as an affiliated senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University

“In the case of Saudi Arabia and Russia, both countries are seeking closer relations, and they want to project a good relationship to the rest of the world.  They both know that there’s no chance of effective cooperation in oil markets due to market forces, but there’s no harm in having an extra meeting, and issuing mutually supportive statements.”

In other words, at a time when Russia and Saudi Arabia are intent on improving their relations with each other, it is in their joint interests to appear to be cooperating on oil production and prices, even if in reality that cooperation does not amount to very much.

By at least going through the motions of talking to and agreeing with each other, they send out a strong signal – first and foremost to the US and Iran – that despite their differences over the conflict in Syria they remain friends.

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Ukraine Wants Nuclear Weapons: Will the West Bow to the Regime in Kiev?

Efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation are one of the few issues on which the great powers agree, intending to continue to limit the spread of nuclear weapons and to prevent new entrants into the exclusive nuclear club.

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Authored by Federico Pieraccini via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


The former Ukrainian envoy to NATO, Major General Petro Garashchuk, recently stated in an interview with Obozrevatel TV:

“I’ll say it once more. We have the ability to develop and produce our own nuclear weapons, currently available in the world, such as the one that was built in the former USSR and which is now in independent Ukraine, located in the city of Dnipro (former Dnipropetrovsk) that can produce these kinds of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Neither the United States, nor Russia, nor China have produced a missile named Satan … At the same time, Ukraine does not have to worry about international sanctions when creating these nuclear weapons.”

The issue of nuclear weapons has always united the great powers, especially following the signing of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The decision to reduce the number of nuclear weapons towards the end of the Cold War went hand in hand with the need to prevent the spread of such weapons of mass destruction to other countries in the best interests of humanity. During the final stages of the Cold War, the scientific community expended great effort on impressing upon the American and Soviet leadership how a limited nuclear exchange would wipe out humanity. Moscow and Washington thus began START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) negotiations to reduce the risk of a nuclear winter. Following the dissolution of the USSR, the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances persuaded Ukraine to relinquish its nuclear weapons and accede to the NPT in exchange for security assurances from its signatories.

Ukraine has in recent years begun entertaining the possibility of returning to the nuclear fold, especially in light of North Korea’s recent actions. Kim Jong-un’s lesson seems to be that a nuclear deterrent remains the only way of guaranteeing complete protection against a regional hegemon. The situation in Ukraine, however, differs from that of North Korea, including in terms of alliances and power relations. Kiev’s government came into power as a result of a coup d’etat carried out by extremist nationalist elements who seek their inspiration from Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera. The long arm of NATO has always been deeply involved in the dark machinations that led to Poroshenko’s ascendency to the Ukrainian presidency. From a geopolitical point of view, NATO’s operation in Ukraine (instigating a civil war in the wake of a coup) follows in the footsteps of what happened in Georgia. NATO tends to organize countries with existing anti-Russia sentiments to channel their Russophobia into concrete actions that aim to undermine Moscow. The war in the Donbass is a prime example.

However, Ukraine has been unable to subdue the rebels in the Donbass region, the conflict freezing into a stalemate and the popularity of the Kiev government falling as the population’s quality of life experiences a precipitous decline. The United States and the European Union have not kept their promises, leaving Poroshenko desperate and tempted to resort to provocations like the recent Kerch strait incident or such as those that are apparently already in the works, as recently reported by the DPR authorities.

The idea of Ukraine resuming its production of nuclear weapons is currently being floated by minor figures, but it could take hold in the coming months, especially if the conflict continues in its frozen state and Kiev becomes frustrated and desperate. The neoconservative wing of the American ruling elite, absolutely committed to the destruction of the Russian Federation, could encourage Kiev along this path, in spite of the incalculable risks involved. The EU, on the other hand, would likely be terrified at the prospect, which would also place it between a rock and a hard place. Kiev, on one side, would be able to extract from the EU much needed economic assistance in exchange for not going nuclear, while on the other side the neocons would be irresponsibly egging the Ukrainians on.

Moscow, if faced with such a possibility, would not just stand there. In spite of Russia having good relations with North Korea, it did not seem too excited at the prospect of having a nuclear-armed neighbor. With Ukraine, the response would be much more severe. A nuclear-armed Ukraine would be a red line for Moscow, just as Crimea and Sevastopol were. It is worth remembering the Russian president’s words when referring to the possibility of a NATO invasion of Crimea during the 2014 coup:

“We were ready to do it [putting Russia’s nuclear arsenal on alert]. Russian people live there, they are in danger, we cannot leave them. It was not us who committed to coup, it was the nationalists and people with extreme beliefs. I do not think this is actually anyone’s wish – to turn it into a global conflict.”

As Kiev stands on the precipice, it will be good for the neocons, the neoliberals and their European lackeys to consider the consequences of advising Kiev to jump or not. Giving the nuclear go-ahead to a Ukrainian leadership so unstable and detached from reality may just be the spark that sets off Armageddon.

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Mike Pompeo lays out his vision for American exceptionalism (Video)

The Duran – News in Review – Episode 158.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and International Affairs and Security Analyst via Moscow, Mark Sleboda take a look at Mike Pompeo’s shocking Brussels speech, where the U.S. Secretary of State took aim at the European Union and United Nations, citing such institutions as outdated and poorly managed, in need of a new dogma that places America at its epicenter.

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Speaking in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unwittingly underscored why nobody takes the United States seriously on the international stage. Via The Council on Foreign Relations


In a disingenuous speech at the German Marshall Fund, Pompeo depicted the transactional and hypernationalist Trump administration as “rallying the noble nations of the world to build a new liberal order.” He did so while launching gratuitous attacks on the European Union, United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund (IMF)—pillars of the existing postwar order the United States did so much to create. He remained silent, naturally, on the body blows that the current administration has delivered to its erstwhile allies and partners, and to the institutions that once upon a time permitted the United States to legitimate rather than squander its international leadership.

In Pompeo’s telling, Donald J. Trump is simply seeking a return to the world that former Secretary of State George Marshall helped to create. In the decades after 1945, the United States “underwrote new institutions” and “entered into treaties to codify Western values of freedom and human rights.” So doing, the United States “won the Cold War” and—thanks to the late President George H. W. Bush, “we won the peace” that followed. “This is the type of leadership that President Trump is boldly reasserting.”

That leadership is needed because the United States “allowed this liberal order to begin to corrode” once the bipolar conflict ended. “Multilateralism has too often become viewed as an end unto itself,” Pompeo explained. “The more treaties we sign, the safer we supposedly are. The more bureaucrats we have, the better the job gets done.” What is needed is a multilateralism that once again places the nation-state front and center.

Leave aside for the moment that nobody actually believes what Pompeo alleges: that multilateralism should be an end in itself; that paper commitments are credible absent implementation, verification, and enforcement; or that the yardstick of success is how many bureaucrats get hired. What sensible people do believe is that multilateral cooperation is often (though not always) the best way for nations to advance their interests in an interconnected world of complicated problems. Working with others is typically superior to unilateralism, since going it alone leaves the United States with the choice of trying to do everything itself (with uncertain results) or doing nothing. Multilateralism also provides far more bang for the buck than President Trump’s favored approach to diplomacy, bilateralism.

Much of Pompeo’s address was a selective and tendentious critique of international institutions that depicts them as invariably antithetical to national sovereignty. Sure, he conceded, the European Union has “delivered a great deal of prosperity to the continent.” But it has since gone badly off track, as the “political wake-up call” of Brexit showed. All this raised a question in his mind: “Is the EU ensuring that the interests of countries and their citizens are placed before those of bureaucrats and Brussels?”

The answer, as one listener shouted out, is “Yes!” The secretary, like many U.S. conservative critics of European integration, is unaware that EU member states continue to hold the lion’s share of power in the bloc, which remains more intergovernmental than supranational. Pompeo seems equally unaware of how disastrously Brexit is playing out. With each passing day, the costs of this catastrophic, self-inflicted wound are clearer. In its quest for complete policy autonomy—on ostensible “sovereignty” grounds—the United Kingdom will likely have to accept, as the price for EU market access, an entire body of law and regulations that it will have no say in shaping. So much for advancing British sovereignty.

Pompeo similarly mischaracterizes the World Bank and IMF as having gone badly off track. “Today, these institutions often counsel countries who have mismanaged their economic affairs to impose austerity measures that inhibit growth and crowd out private sector actors.” This is an odd, hybrid critique. It combines a shopworn, leftist criticism from the 1990s—that the international financial institutions (IFIs) punish poor countries with structural adjustment programs—with the conservative accusation that the IFIs are socialist, big-government behemoths. Both are ridiculous caricatures. They ignore how much soul-searching the IFIs have done since the 1990s, as well as how focused they are on nurturing an enabling institutional environment for the private sector in partner countries.

Pompeo also aims his blunderbuss at the United Nations. He complains that the United Nations’ “peacekeeping missions drag on for decades, no closer to peace,” ignoring the indispensable role that blue helmets play in preventing atrocities, as well as a recent Government Accountability Office report documenting how cost-effective such operations are compared to U.S. troops. Similarly, Pompeo claims, “The UN’s climate-related treaties are viewed by some nations simply as a vehicle to redistribute wealth”—an accusation that is both unsubstantiated and ignores the urgent need to mobilize global climate financing to save the planet.

Bizarrely, Pompeo also turns his sights on the Organization of American States (OAS) and the African Union (AU), for alleged shortcomings. Has the OAS, he asks, done enough “to promote its four pillars of democracy, human rights, security, and economic development?” Um, no. Could that have something to do with the lack of U.S. leadership in the Americas on democracy and human rights? Yes. Might it have helped if the Trump administration had filled the position of assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs before October 15 of this year? Probably.

Equally puzzling is Pompeo’s single line riff on the AU. “In Africa, does the African Union advance the mutual interest of its nation-state members?” Presumably the answer is yes, or its members would be headed for the door. The AU continues to struggle in financing its budget, but it has made great strides since its founding in 2002 to better advance security, stability, and good governance on the continent.

“International bodies must help facilitate cooperation that bolsters the security and values of the free world, or they must be reformed or eliminated,” Pompeo declared. Sounds reasonable. But where is this “free world” of which the secretary speaks, and what standing does the United States today have to defend, much less reform it? In the two years since he took office, Donald Trump has never expressed any interest in defending the international order, much less “returning [the United States] to its traditional, central leadership role in the world,” as Pompeo claims. Indeed, the phrase “U.S. leadership” has rarely escaped Trump’s lips, and he has gone out of his way to alienate longstanding Western allies and partners in venues from NATO to the G7.

When he looks at the world, the president cares only about what’s in it for the United States (and, naturally, for him). That cynicism explains the president’s deafening silence on human rights violations and indeed his readiness to cozy up to strongmen and killers from Vladimir Putin to Rodrigo Duterte to Mohammed bin Salman to too many more to list. Given Trump’s authoritarian sympathies and instincts, Pompeo’s warnings about “Orwellian human rights violations” in China and “suppressed opposition voices” in Russia ring hollow.

“The central question that we face,” Pompeo asked in Brussels, “is the question of whether the system as currently configured, as it exists today—does it work? Does it work for all the people of the world?” The answer, of course, is not as well as it should, and not for nearly enough of them. But if the secretary is seeking to identify impediments to a better functioning multilateral system, he can look to his left in his next Cabinet meeting.

“Principled realism” is the label Pompeo has given Trump’s foreign policy. Alas, it betrays few principles and its connection to reality is tenuous. The president has abandoned any pursuit of universal values, and his single-minded obsession to “reassert our sovereignty” (as Pompeo characterizes it) is actually depriving the United States of joining with others to build the prosperous, secure, and sustainable world that Americans want.

“Bad actors have exploited our lack of leadership for their own gain,” the secretary of state declared in Belgium. “This is the poisoned fruit of American retreat.” How true. Pompeo’s next sentence—“President Trump is determined to reverse that”—was less persuasive.

 

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Russia calls on US to put a leash on Petro Poroshenko

The West’s pass for Mr. Poroshenko may blow up in NATO’s and the US’s face if the Ukrainian President tries to start a war with Russia.

Seraphim Hanisch

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Russia called on Washington not to ignore the Poroshenko directives creating an active military buildup along the Ukrainian-Donbass frontier, this buildup consisting of Ukrainian forces and right-wing ultranationalists, lest it “trigger the implementation of a bloody scenario”, according to a Dec 11 report from TASS.

The [Russian] Embassy [to the US] urges the US State Department to recognize the presence of US instructors in the zone of combat actions, who are involved in a command and staff and field training of Ukraine’s assault airborne brigades. “We expect that the US will bring to reason its proteges. Their aggressive plans are not only doomed to failure but also run counter to the statements of the administration on its commitment to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine by political and diplomatic means,” the statement said.

This warning came after Eduard Basurin, the deputy defense minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic noted that the Ukrainian army was massing troops and materiel for a possible large-scale offensive at the Mariupol section of the contact line in Donbass. According to Basurin, this action is expected to take place on 14 December. TASS offered more details:

According to the DPR’s reconnaissance data, Ukrainian troops plan to seize the DPR’s Novoazovsky and Temanovsky districts and take control over the border section with Russia. The main attack force of over 12,000 servicemen has been deployed along the contact line near the settlements of Novotroitskoye, Shirokino, and Rovnopol. Moreover, more than 50 tanks, 40 multiple missile launcher systems, 180 artillery systems and mortars have been reportedly pulled to the area, Basurin added. Besides, 12 BM-30 Smerch heavy multiple rocket launchers have been sent near Volodarsky.

The DPR has warned about possible provocations plotted by Ukrainian troops several times. Thus, in early December, the DPR’s defense ministry cited reconnaissance data indicating that the Ukrainian military was planning to stage an offensive and deliver an airstrike. At a Contact Group meeting on December 5, DPR’s Foreign Minister Natalia Nikonorova raised the issue of Kiev’s possible use of chemical weapons in the conflict area.

This is a continuation of the reported buildup The Duran reported in this article linked here, and it is a continuation of the full-scale drama that started with the Kerch Strait incident, which itself appears to have been staged by Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko. Following that incident, the president was able to get about half of Ukraine placed under a 30-day period of martial law, citing “imminent Russian aggression.”

President Poroshenko is arguably a dangerous man. He appears to be desperate to maintain a hold on power, though his approval numbers and support is abysmally low in Ukraine. While he presents himself as a hero, agitating for armed conflict with Russia and simultaneously interfering in the affairs of the Holy Eastern Orthodox Church, he is actually one of the most dangerous leaders the world has to contend with, precisely because he is unfit to lead.

Such men and women are dangerous because their desperation makes them short-sighted, only concerned about their power and standing.

An irony about this matter is that President Poroshenko appears to be exactly what the EuroMaidan was “supposed” to free Ukraine of; that is, a stooge puppet leader that marches to orders from a foreign power and does nothing for the improvement of the nation and its citizens.

The ouster of Viktor Yanukovich was seen as the sure ticket to “freedom from Russia” for Ukraine, and it may well have been that Mr. Yanukovich was an incompetent leader. However, his removal resulted in a tryannical regíme coming into power, that resulting in the secession of two Ukrainian regions into independent republics and a third secession of strategically super-important Crimea, who voted in a referendum to rejoin Russia.

While this activity was used by the West to try to bolster its own narrative that Russia remains the evil henchman in Europe, the reality of life in Ukraine doesn’t match this allegation at all. A nation that demonstrates such behavior shows that there are many problems, and the nature of these secessions points at a great deal of fear from Russian-speaking Ukrainian people about the government that is supposed to be their own.

President Poroshenko presents a face to the world that the West is apparently willing to support, but the in-country approval of this man as leader speaks volumes. The West’s blind support of him “against Russia” may be one of the most tragic errors yet in Western foreign policy.

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