Bush's backup plan for securing oil

One of the most intriguing partnerships on the international scene is that between Vladimir Putin, former communist and KGB operative, turned president of Russia, and George Bush, Harvard MBA and businessman, turned president of the United States.

It is an odd-couple alliance born out of mutual necessity and opportunity. Mr. Putin recognizes that his country's future lies with the West and desperately needs Mr. Bush's embrace. Bush wants a peaceful Russia that won't undermine American interests around the world, and will be an ally in the war against terrorism.

If the US goes to war with Iraq, Putin is also Bush's ace in the hole, because Putin can supply oil to the US that might be disrupted from the Middle East.

Aside from this political marriage of convenience, the two men have become accustomed to reading each other's minds and dealing with each other frankly. Putin is a little more reserved. Bush is first-name Texan friendliness, with a private nick-name for the Russian leader.

A participant in the recent summit meeting between the two men in Russia shed light for me on this sometimes amusing relationship. Putin wanted to talk trade, banking reform, and privatization of the media in Russia, with trade foremost in his mind. "Now, Vladimir," said Bush, "we're not going to talk trade until you buy my chickens." The chickens come from Arkansas, a poultry-raising state which, perhaps not coincidentally, will be important to Bush in his reelection campaign.

President Putin tried to deflect the chicken issue, murmuring something about a broad discussion on trade. But Bush was having none of it. "Vladimir," he retorted, "we got to talk first about you buying my chickens." Putin tried the broad agenda gambit again, injecting something about oil sales. "Vladimir," came back the president, "you don't understand. I got two shiploads of chickens waiting to sail and I want you to buy them now. Then we talk trade."

Bemused, and perhaps amused, the president of Russia conceded defeat and agreed to buy the American president's Arkansas chickens before they moved on to more substantive issues. That certainly included oil, of which Russia has a great deal.

Traditionally, the US has been dependent on Arab oil. Saudi Arabia sits on 25 percent of the world's known oil reserves and four other countries in the Persian Gulf area control about another 40 percent. But Russia has been quietly expanding its oil production. According to energy experts Edward Morse and James Richard, writing in Foreign Affairs, the rate of increase is about half a million barrels a day, and Russia and the successor states of the old Soviet Union can continue to increase oil output at this rate for years to come.

Thus Russia and Saudi Arabia have become the world's two largest oil exporters, at a time when the Putin-Bush relationship is blossoming, but the US-Saudi relationship is under some strain. This offers opportunity for the US to turn to Russia as an alternative oil supplier should Arab political pressure diminish the flow of Arab oil to the US, or should Iraq, besieged in warfare with the US, sabotage the Saudi oil fields that provide much of America's imported oil.

At the government-to-government level, both the US and the Saudis promote their relationship as one of longtime allies. But the press and publics in each country are more critical. Americans resent the fact that the majority of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi nationals, and are suspicious of clandestine Saudi ties with Al Qaeda and the promotion of Islamic extremism. Saudis, for their part, resent American support for Israel and what they perceive as the Bush administration's inability to bring Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting to an end.

One advantage the Saudis have over the Russians as oil-producers is that the Saudis are not producing oil at full capacity and have immense reserves. In times of normal competition they can, as they have before, flood the international market with oil at depressed prices, weather the decline in their own revenue, and bring other producers to heel.

But should the flow of Arab oil to the US be jeopardized by political or military action, Russia is available as an alternative source. Its supply is fast increasing from new production in the Caspian Sea region, as well as from the development with foreign oil companies of wells on Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East. Eager to sell Russian oil to the US, this perhaps explains why President Putin was so accommodating about buying President Bush's chickens from Arkansas.

• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is former editor of the Monitor.

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