Heating oil's link to a nation at war

The answer is that Russia keeps the war going with cash earned from oil. And there's the link with the price of heating oil in New Hampshire and gasoline everywhere else in America.

February 17, 2000|By Thomas Grant

THE PRICE of home heating oil goes through the roof, and lower-income families throughout the United States start to feel the pinch.

Russian artillery and fighter bombers pound Chechen civilians and rebels indiscriminately in Grozny, and international organizations start to question Russia's human rights credentials. Completely unconnected headlines?

In fact, they could not be more closely tied.

Since September, Russia has mounted its second invasion in less than five years of the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Russia says Chechnya is part of Russia. Chechnya wants independence. Russia has strengthened its case for invasion by noting that Chechnya, before September, was a lawless land, where bribery, in-fighting, kidnapping and violence ran rampant. Moreover, Russia claims that Islamic militants were using Chechnya as a staging area for attacks on Russian territory.

Failed plan

If it were the United States, public opinion would probably have endorsed a crackdown, too. However, Russia's invasion of Chechnya has not worked. Russia's use of force has created a quarter-million refugees, destroyed the physical infrastructure of an area the size of Connecticut and killed untold thousands of civilians and combatants, both Russians and Chechens.

And, worse still, it is not solving the problems of instability and terrorism that were the alleged reason for using force in the first place -- it has made those problems worse.

The Russian military campaign -- like most military campaigns -- has cost a lot in cash as well as blood. In fact, the price keeps getting higher, as Russia has to send more tanks, more rifles, more planes, more bombs and all the logistical support that it takes to keep something like 150,000 men in a combat theater. (The exact numbers of Russian troops are uncertain.) Yet, as recently as last spring, Russia was cash-strapped, its government scrounging from international lending agencies and Western governments for loans and hand-outs to keep itself solvent. Where has the money come from to run the war in Chechnya?

The answer is that Russia keeps the war going with cash earned from oil. And there's the link with the price of heating oil in New Hampshire and gasoline everywhere else in America.

In March last year, OPEC decided, after years of squabbling, to return to its old solidarity. The petroleum exporting countries that form the organization cut production by 8 percent -- and the current oil price increases began. Russia, though not an OPEC member, is a major oil exporter.

Direct link to oil

Indeed, Russia's foreign exchange balance depends heavily on the price of oil. When the price is down, Russia is strapped for cash. When the price is up, Russia is flush. OPEC's actions last year have put the pinch on cold weather Americans and car owners everywhere -- and funded a war in Chechnya that both violates principles of proportionality in the use of force and fails to accomplish its alleged objectives.

And the link does not stop there. Following it further, however, may very well lead to a solution.

Key OPEC countries are also key Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Libya and Indonesia are the main examples. The Chechens are Muslims. Starting especially this month, individual Muslim countries and multilateral organizations such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference have begun to call Russia on its actions in Chechnya.

Afghanistan, a radical Islamic state that other Muslim countries worry may try to capitalize on their weaknesses, has stated pointedly that any government in a Muslim country not helping the Chechens is failing in its duty to Islam. Perhaps responding to the threat implicit in this, other Muslim countries have moved, slowly so far, to criticize Russia for the Chechya war.

Two birds, one stone

The OPEC-Chechnya link, if properly used by the United States, could solve both problems -- the high price of oil and the destabilizing and inhumane war in Chechnya. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright should shuttle to OPEC capitals -- or even urge OPEC to hold an emergency meeting in Vienna. To the gathered oil ministers, she should boldly underline the connection between the current high oil prices and the suffering of Muslim Chechens under Russian guns in Grozny.

If a bit of behind-the-scenes diplomacy is necessary -- to remind Muslim governments that they risk losing their Islamic credentials if they do not do something meaningful to help their brothers in Chechnya -- then the secretary should do that, too.

It would be a bold move, and one that would challenge unconditional Russia-backers in the U.S. administration. But if it worked, it would take the pressure off Americans hard-pressed by the rising price of oil -- and quite possibly hasten the ending of a fruitless war in Russia.

Thomas D. Grant is a visiting fellow at the Max Planck Institute of International Law in Heidelberg, Germany and a member of the bars of Massachusetts, New York, and Washington.

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