Oil Curse: Russia’s Petroimperialism and the (In)Human Geographies of War

Time and again, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is being called a “fossil war.” But what does that actually mean? Oxana Timofeeva shows in her contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism” how the extractivist ecosystem of the oil industry is not only being maintained during the war, but also literally fuels it.


One of the consequences of the Putin regime’s war against Ukraine is the emergence of a new iron curtain between Russia and European countries, from visa limitations and border restrictions to entry bans. For people in Russia, these limitations were not a big surprise: after the recent experience of quarantine border policies during the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, society was ready for these kinds of restrictions.

Now, retrospectively, the period of the pandemic, when international travels were limited for people, but mostly remained unlimited for money and commodities, looks like a rehearsal for a bigger state of emergency. Today, economic and political sanctions, introduced as a response to Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine, seem to affect not only people, but also money and commodity flows between my country and the rest of the world. However, there is something that remains almost untouched by these policies.

Pipelines untouched by war

It is much easier to introduce an entry ban on people than on commodities such as crude oil and natural gas. Indeed, officials in Europe discuss possibilities of an oil embargo, and think how to weaken the resource ties with Russia. Indeed, there is a general call to reduce the levels of consumption of oil and gas from Russia, which ascribes to the general urge for the transition to renewable energy systems in order to prevent catastrophic developments brought about by planetary climate change. However, things still keep going.

One of the most interesting cases is the world longest oil pipeline, which begins in Tatarstan, where it collects oil from other pipelines running from Western Siberia, Urals, and Caspian Sea, and transports it from Russia and Kazakhstan through Ukraine and Belarus, to Europe. This 4.000 kilometers long pipeline, called ‘Druzhba,’ which translates from Russian as ‘Friendship’ was designed and constructed from 1958 to 1964 with the aim to provide oil supplies from the Soviet Union to the countries of the Socialist block, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, GDR, and Hungary. Now ‘Druzhba’ brings crude oil to Belarus, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Germany.

The southern branch of the pipeline runs through Ukraine. Except for short abortions, such as the one in August 2022, when the shipments of oil were halted for one week because of difficulties with international bank transfers, throughout the course of the war basic agreements on the transportation of oil from Russia to Europe via Ukraine remain in force and effect. Likewise, infrastructure remains intact. Thus, oil flows through its pipes smoothly, and the money is paid on time. Cities in Ukraine are on fire, civil infrastructure, and even the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station is troubled, but not pipelines. Oil flows from Russia to Ukraine and then to Europe. Here comes the irony of naming into play: a capitalist ‘druzhba’ as a legacy of socialist ‘friendship’ behind the stage of the theater of war, where people die.

The politics of the petrostate

In his book “Nature’s evil: a cultural history of natural resources” Alexander Etkind defines Russia as a petrostate, borrowing this concept from Fernando Coronil. According to Coronil, a petrostate is a state which is based on the oil trade. The petrostate concept is closely related to another one: the oil curse, which was introduced by Michael Ross. The question raised by Ross was why, in certain countries, instead of economic growth, the extraction of fossil fuels brings about social, economic, political, and cultural degradation? Oil revenues promise prosperity to the population, but often merely bring enormous wealth to elites, while the rest becomes poorer and poorer.

Petrostates have enormous incomes, part of which can be redistributed among the population which thus depends on the generosity of the elites. If most of the income comes from fossil fuels, the state neither depends on such things as taxation, nor does it need to develop high technologies, science, education, public services etc. The life of the state is fully based on brutal exploitation of natural resources.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

Coronil’s example of a petrostate is Venezuela. In 1938, it became the world’s biggest exporter of oil. However, instead of developing economy, building new factories, and universities, the government took on more and more debt on account of future oil production. Finally, society collapsed. Etkind, in turn, writes about late Soviet Union, whose economy ended up entirely relying on the export of fossil fuels. As noted by Oleksiy Radynski in his critical account on the current situation: ‘It’s worth noting that Russia’s fossil fuel industry – an enormous infrastructure for extraction and transportation of oil and gas, spanning from Siberia to Western Europe – was itself key to the dissolution of Soviet Communism and the emergence of a kleptocratic, extractivist far-right regime from its ruins in Russia.’

Fossil fascism

Radynsky defines this regime as fossil fascism. This term was introduced by Cara Daggett, and recently elaborated by Andreas Malm and the Zetkin collective in reference to Western petrocapitalism, but I agree with Radynsky, that this term is totally applicable to the phenomenon of Putinism today. How did we come here?

According to Etkind, there are countries with good (democratic) and bad (authoritarian) institutions. Democratic institutions can prevent the falling of the state to the trap of the oil curse. In turn, most of authoritarian petrostates are characterized by big inequality rate, excessive luxury consumption of elites, corruption, patriarchal oppression of women, religious fundamentalism, the luck of proper cultural development and education, ecological catastrophes, etc.

Due to the luck of transparency and civil control, oil money goes directly or indirectly into the pockets of private persons. A small group of people in power become richer and richer, but, as the society gradually collapses, they prefer to have their ‘assets’ abroad: sending their children to universities in Europe, US or UK, buying overseas properties such as villas, or yachts. As a result, oil money received from abroad actually goes back abroad as private capitals of those who rule the state and who are not interested in investing in their own country.

Imperial phantasms

Indeed, this situation cannot last forever, and social antagonism escalates together with the growth of inequality. I would like to emphasize the fact that, shortly before the war, the situation in Russia’s society was highly explosive, and the situation close to revolutionary. There were huge protest rallies, where people expressed dissatisfaction with Putin’s politics, fake elections, corruption, and police brutality. The protests were severely repressed, but people begun to lose fear, and each new repression could become a trigger for new protests. However, instead of a revolution we got the war, and the politics of the ruling class rapidly took a fascist turn.

Historically, fascism emerges as a means to neutralize the growing social antagonism by creating a national unity of the oppressors and the oppressed around one strong leader and recanalizing the energy of revolution into military aggression towards an external enemy. This is exactly the case of today’s Russia.

Another specificity of Russia as a petrostate is that it extends over vast territories and is multinational: formally, it is federation, but the dominant groups think of it as an empire. Therefore, we can also speak of petroimperialism.Imperialist fantasies are one of the components of historical fascist ideologies (thus, the idea of the restoration of the great empire of the past was a part of fascisms in Italy and Germany in the20th century). Russia, too, has its imperial legacy. Liberal critics of the Putin regime tend to think that his political ambition is the restoration of the Soviet Union, but in fact Russia’s fossil fascism is driven by the capitalist colonial dream of the Russian Empire before the October revolution of 1917. In this sense, we can also use another term in this context: petroimperialism.

My argument is that the reasons why petroimperialism collapses into petrofascism, which combines external aggression and internal police terror, cannot be reduced to bad institutions and the lack of democracy in this particular country. The oil curse is a systemic problem of global petrocapitalism, which produces the variety of forms of interdependencies and pipeline ‘friendships.’ A very rough sketch on the (non)human geographies of crude oil trade before and during the war can help to grasp this global dimension.

The ecosystem of death

What is generally labeled as “Russian oil” mostly comes from Siberia. This region was conquered by the Russian Empire in several steps, from 16th to 18th centuries. A process of urban development started in the 1960s, when gigantic oil fields were discovered beneath the layers of permafrost. Geologists, oilmen, and builders arrived, and Soviet industrial cities begun to grow in Siberia. Already long before the region was – and still is – populated by indigenous peoples, whose representatives gradually disappear, because their traditional sustainable ways of life are incompatible with the extractive industry that simply destroys their natural environments. Not only oil, but gas, diamonds, gold, and other natural resources are extracted from the territories that were conquered, i.e., colonized, in different historical periods of the Russian Empire.

Back to oil. Before February 2022, when Russia’s military forces invaded Ukraine, oil was running from Siberia and other peripheral regions to Europe (via Ukraine), whereas money was travelling from Europe to Moscow, and then from Moscow back to Europe. After February 2022, oil still makes the same or almost the same way from peripheral regions to Europe (via Ukraine), and money still goes from Europe to Moscow. However, instead of returning to Europe as the elite’s private capitals and investments, oil money is now spent on the war against Ukraine. Apart from oil, what is going to Ukraine from the different regions of Russia, are the living bodies of the people that form the bigger body of the army. What goes back to Siberia and other regions is the so-called ‘cargo 200’: the dead bodies of the soldiers.

This is how the machine of petroimperialism keeps running: as long as oil will be exchanged for money, this particular petrostate will have a possibility to continue the war; but for the other states, too, another petrofascist turn will remain a potentiality.

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de

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