Over the course of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin suffered a storm of well-deserved criticism in the Western media. The unresolved murders of journalists and ex-spies, human rights abuses in Chechnya, rampant corruption and continuing consolidation of authoritarian power in the Kremlin have combined to make Putin’s regime one of the greatest failures of the “Third Wave” of democratization. So much promise; so little achieved.

But let’s give some credit where credit is due. Putin has probably done more to help the cause of environmentalists and those pushing for alternative energy than anyone else in the world. No, it was not through bold stances on international agreements or a strict adherence to domestic environmental codes that Putin achieved this laudable distinction. He did it the way he usually does: incompetence and highhandedness.

As is increasingly noticed in Europe, Putin’s Russia has been perfectly willing to use gas as a weapon. Recent gas “slap downs” (as Newsweek calls them), have targeted Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania and Georgia. At the same time, the Kremlin-backed oil and gas behemoth Gazprom has been gobbling up pipelines and refineries, forcing competitors from the Russian oil fields. The story of Yukos, the Russian oil firm that was systematically dismantled by the state while its owner was shipped off to a Siberian prison, is just the most prominent of these cases. All of this has served to put an understandable chill in Western investment in Russian oil projects.

In a December 2006 leader profile entitled “Don’t Mess With Russia,” The Economist asserts: “In the early part of the decade new production from the former Soviet Union accounted for most of the growth in the world’s supply of oil and gas.” Western companies moved into Siberia, and in mutually beneficial partnerships with locals, began to tap the massive reserves the USSR had never had the technical expertise or market incentive to develop. “But when Mr. Putin began his campaign to take control of Russia’s resources,” the article continues, “that growth stalled, just as China’s demand for energy was taking off. The present high prices for oil and gas are the result.”

These high prices have in turn had a large impact on public opinion in America. The last two years have seen a remarkable convergence: belatedly following the European lead, Americans began to see alternative energy and energy conservation not as some fringe environmental issue but as a key component of both short- and long-term economic health. And just as oil prices opened minds to a post-fossil fuel economy, so too they weakened old prejudices on wider environmental issues. Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” could not have come out at a better time. The hot summer, skyrocketing gas prices and a dire long-term energy outlook made Americans – even Republicans – unusually open to his arguments about global climate change.

Even President Bush, the number one oil man in the country, has begun to come around. In his 2006 State of the Union address, the president rasped, with a look of intense discomfort on his face, “America is addicted to oil.” As Jon Stewart observed at the time, it was “actually harder for him to say it, than for us to do it.”

Much of this newfound sentiment can be traced to Western pocketbooks, where Russia’s energy policy and the subsequent price increase has had the biggest influence. The continuing success of hybrids like the Toyota Prius is based as much on economic necessity as environmentalist connections to Gaia. Many consumers can expect to recoup their initial investment within a relatively short time period, especially if oil prices rise again.

To be sure, Bush’s Middle East policy also played a role in the recent oil spike – including speculation over a possible attack on Iran – but in terms of long-term price increases, Russia’s mismanagement of its own reserves is more significant. There are still huge deposits of oil and gas beneath the Russian tundra; most of them are likely to remain there because Western oil companies shy away from continued investment. So once more, let us thank Putin: He has bravely sacrificed Russia’s international reputation and long-term economic prospects, all to wake up the West to the need to move beyond fossil fuels – even if he did not intend to.

The author is an English teacher living in Petropavlovsk, Kazakhstan, near the Russian border.

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