Will lower oil prices mean more Soviet sales to the West?
Hard-pressed Soviet policymakers - already frustrated by efforts to prop up a deteriorating economy - now face the prospect of rapidly falling hard-currency earnings from oil exports.
Analysts in the West agree that recent price cuts in crude oil will mean additional sacrifices for the Soviet people. But there is still widespread disagreement on the overall impact on the Soviet economy in the medium and long term.
Some analysts say Moscow will be able to adjust. Others say the oil-price slide could do serious, if not irreparable, damage to the fabric of Soviet life.
For starters, consider that the Soviet Union - the world's largest oil producer - was delivering 1.1 million barrels per day (b.p.d.) to the West two years ago at about $39 a barrel. Today, it has increased shipments to about 1.5 million b.p.d., but the price has fallen to about $28 a barrel. The net loss has been huge.
A report released last week by the Cologne-based Institute for East European and International Studies said that Moscow has lost about $500 million for each cut of $1 in oil prices.
If the spot price of Soviet crude holds at about $28 a barrel through 1983, the institute projects the Soviet Union will earn about $3 billion less this year in hard currency from its oil exports to the West than it did last year. In 1982, that total was about $16 billion, or about 60 percent of Moscow's hard-currency earnings.
Some Western experts, however, insist that the Soviet Union will be able to compensate for the loss by boosting oil exports to the West even more than it has to date.
Few analysts argue that Moscow will be able to boost exports by increasing production. Even a leading Soviet economist remarked on the limits to its production capacity last week.
''We have clearly reached the limit in output of oil and a number of other components of our energy and raw material exports, except, of course, gas and electro-energy,'' Oleg Bogomolov wrote in International Life, a political monthly.
Mr. Bogomolov suggested in the same article, however, that Moscow may divert oil supplies from its East European allies to increase its shipments to the West. Soviet allies, he said, must begin to conserve energy supplies, rely on domestic sources, and increase the use of nuclear energy. Some reports contend the Soviet Union has already slashed shipments to Eastern Europe by as much as 10 percent and diverted the oil to the Western market.
The other options open to the Soviets are to step up their switch from oil to other fuels - coal, gas, and nuclear power - and to push harder for energy conservation. Western analysts say there is little evidence to date that Moscow has launched a switchover, but much evidence that conservation will be this decade's watchword across the Soviet Union.
Recent official Soviet statements have hinted that Moscow hopes to save the equivalent of 130 million tons of oil, or about 950 million barrels, between now and 1985 - up from earlier projections of between 110 and 120 million tons of oil equivalent. This will certainly put constraints on Soviet expansion and set back East European plans to ease up on two years of austerity, Western experts say.
But some analysts suggest a combination of measures in fact will enable the Soviets to increase - not decrease - their oil exports to the West substantially , beginning this year.
Foremost among these analysts are those from the highly respected Wharton Econometric Forecasting Associates, whose Dr. Jan Vanous told a NATO colloquium in Brussels last week that Moscow will increase the quantity of energy exported - much of it oil - by 20 to 25 percent in 1983 ''to compensate for the decline in prices.''
This view is not shared by other observers, who argue that few countries in the West will be prepared to increase their oil imports this year unless the economic recovery now under way turns out to be much stronger than anticipated. Energy experts at the 10-nation European Community in Brussels, for example, forecast earlier this month that net oil imports would decline again this year for the fourth year running - by about 2 percent, from 331 million tons of oil equivalent last year to about 325 millions in 1983.
Some also doubt that the Soviets will be able to sustain a further increase in oil exports to the West following the 23 percent rise (to record levels) of oil exports to the noncommunist world between 1981 and 1982.
For the West itself, the ability of the Soviet Union to peddle its oil will affect how much Western grain, technology, and other products it can buy. No one outside the inner circle of Kremlin policymakers knows the country's hard-currency needs. But the US Department of Agriculture, for example, has said that Moscow had hoped to buy 36 million tons of grain this year from abroad.
Any loss in hard-currency earnings could affect Soviet purchases of Western equipment to build the controversial natural-gas pipeline linking the Soviet Union with Western Europe, some experts say.
For now, industrial production in the Soviet Union has been falling, according to the Communist Party newspaper Pravda. Some Western analysts expect a further decline over the course of this year - in large part due to Moscow's need to keep oil exports high.