The Russian Threat Runs Out of Fuel

BRUSSELS – For Europe, the defining event of 2014 was Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. The Kremlin’s actions directly challenged key principles that have guided Europe for more than six decades, particularly the renunciation of the use of force to alter national borders. But Russia is in no position to sustain its aggressive foreign policy.

It has often been argued that Russia was reacting to the perceived encroachment on its “near abroad” by the European Union and NATO. But history suggests a simpler explanation: A decade of steadily rising oil prices had emboldened Russia, leaving it ready to seize any opportunity to deploy its military power.

Indeed, the Soviet Union had a similar experience 40 years ago, when a protracted period of rising oil revenues fueled an increasingly assertive foreign policy, which culminated in the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Oil prices quadrupled following the first oil embargo in 1973, and the discovery of large reserves in the 1970s underpinned a massive increase in Soviet output. As a result, from 1965 to 1980, the value of Soviet oil production soared by a factor of almost 20.

Burgeoning oil wealth bolstered the regime’s credibility – not least by enabling a significant increase in military spending – and rising economic and military strength gave the Soviet Union’s geriatric leadership a rejuvenated sense of invulnerability. The invasion of Afghanistan was not merely an improvised response to a local development (a putsch in Kabul); it was also a direct result of this trend.