A shiny new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal is set to open in the Polish port of Swinoujscie next year.
Three-thousand kilometers to the east, Chinese President Xi Jinping leap-frogged across Central Asia in September signing billions of dollars of energy deals with producing countries such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan -- as well as with the crucial transit country Kyrgyzstan.
These two developments at either end of an energy network that has been firmly anchored by Moscow for decades are sure signs of a shifting global energy environment that threatens the core of Russia's economic and geopolitical might.
The long-time business model of Russian state energy companies like Gazprom and Rosneft -- which essentially boils down to dictating terms both to isolated energy producers in the Caspian region and to captive consumers in Europe -- is falling apart at both ends.
"There are a number of different shifts that are making the next 10 to 20 years in the global energy environment look very different from the last 10 to 20 years," says Alexandros Petersen, an adviser on European energy-security issues at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, who believes that major changes could be afoot for Russia
To be sure, Russia remains a huge global energy player. It seesaws back and forth with Saudi Arabia as the world's largest oil producer, and it has the largest natural-gas reserves on the planet. It provides about 30 percent of Europe's natural-gas needs.
However, that position is looking far less stable than it once did.
"Over the last 20 years, Russia has to a very significant extent lived off the Soviet legacy of oil and gas investment in western Siberia," says John Lough, an associate fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House in London. "Those years of relatively cheap exploitation of those resources are coming to an end."
The U.S. Energy Department reported earlier this month that the United States -- with a huge surge in production based on high-tech extraction methods to harvest oil and gas from shale-rock formations -- will surpass Russia as the world's leading combined oil-and-gas producer in 2013.
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Breaking Russia's Grip
U.S. imports of natural gas have fallen by one-third and oil imports have dropped 15 percent, leaving vast supplies on world markets for other consumers -- including Russia's key customers in Europe.
The development of LNG technology, which allows natural gas to be shipped by rail and tanker ships, has contributed greatly to breaking the grip of Russia's Soviet-era pipeline system.
In addition, producer Azerbaijan has aggressively established its own ties to customers in Europe and has virtually freed itself from dependence on Moscow to bring its oil and gas to market.
At the other end of the network, China is the big customer, but it has the resources and technology to develop its own supply networks.
Although Beijing has struck some impressive deals with Russia and could be a key player in developing Russian energy resources in eastern Siberia, the Far East, and the Arctic, China deals with Russia as just another energy supplier rather than as the only game in town.
"China has stolen a march on the Russians in Central Asia -- no question about that," says Lough. "The speed at which it has been able to develop its relationships with the Central Asian governments and, on the basis of that, put in place infrastructure, has been impressive."
The changes are already having a palpable impact on Russia, where the energy sector accounts for around 30 percent of GDP and at least half of the government's revenues. Gazprom's profits declined 15 percent in 2012 and exports to Europe fell by 8 percent.
Russia's overall economic growth was just 1.2 percent in the second quarter of this year, below the government's projected 1.9 percent. Meanwhile, Russian government spending has ballooned in recent years.
In 2005, the government projected oil prices of $55 a barrel in order to balance the budget. Now, former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin says the figure is around $117. Oil prices are currently hovering around $100 per barrel.
The situation is not impossible for Russia, despite inevitable comparisons between the current situation and the role that changing global energy markets in the 1980s played in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Such comparisons may be premature and, in fact, the growing energy demand in China and the rest of South and Southeast Asia could offer lucrative opportunities -- if Moscow is ready to take advantage of them.
First, analysts say the Kremlin must decide if it really wants to continue using Gazprom as a geopolitical weapon against its neighbors, a practice that has considerable economic costs.
For instance, the tiny breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniester -- which is propped up by Moscow as a form of leverage over Chisinau -- has racked up more than $3 billion in unpaid debts to Gazprom over the last two decades.
According to Petersen, if the Kremlin can break away from this mindset, it can approach the energy sector from a new and more businesslike perspective.
"If the Kremlin sees Gazprom as a genuinely commercial venture, if it wants to make money, then certainly it would make a lot of sense not just to break Gazprom up but to allow competition from [state-controlled oil giant] Rosneft and other players as well," he says.
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In Peterson's view, this should apply to "both managing the internal natural-gas system, which is in dire need of upgrade within the country, but also in terms of exports, because that would in theory, at least, create efficiencies across the board."
In the past, Russia has left huge quantities of money on the table in its energy sector, both through enormous inefficiencies that Gazprom must cover through subsidized domestic gas prices and through corruption.
Transparency International ranks Gazprom as one of the most opaque and corrupt companies in the world, noting in a 2012 assessment of the world's 105 largest companies that Gazprom was the only one to score zero in terms of effective anticorruption measures.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington estimates that Gazprom loses $40 billion a year to corruption and waste -- as much as 40 percent of its total revenues.
These are resources that must be harnessed if Russia is to successfully reorient its energy-export system toward Asia; develop the resources of eastern Siberia, the Far East, and the Arctic -- and become a global LNG force.
In addition, Chatham House's Lough says Moscow must do much more to attract foreign investment and expertise.
"The new resources, these new frontier areas, are very inhospitable," he says. "There's very little, if any, infrastructure in them and the cost of developing resources there is somewhat greater than in western Siberia. It is also, in some cases, technologically much more complex, which is why Russia therefore needs foreign partners and access to the best international experience."
Accomplishing all these tasks under the pressure of the shifting global energy environment will require some tough political choices for Russia's leadership, including a dramatic trimming back of the crony capitalism that has characterized the post-Soviet period and a more cooperative international posture.
But the price of not making these choices could be a sharp decline in the government's ability to subsidize impoverished and volatile regions in the North Caucasus, to continue expanding and upgrading its defense capabilities, and to maintain the social subsidies that much of the population continues to depend on.
By. Robert Coalson
Originally published on: RFERL