November 08, 2007

By Julia Erlandson, Daily Bruin senior staff

Steve LevineThe Middle East may often dominate oil discussions, but a panel Tuesday evening highlighted the importance of oil in other regions to world politics. (The event was co-sponsored by UCLA Anderson's Center for International Business Education and Research.)

The panel featured journalist Steve LeVine and discussion centered around oil in the Caspian region, where LeVine spent 11 years reporting.

Russia has a great deal of influence in the area because several major oil producers, such as Kazakhstan, were members of the Soviet Union, LeVine said. He added that Russia's heavy involvement makes the regional oil industry strategically important to the U.S.

"Power in Russia - and Putin’s power, where he’s going - can be understood by watching the pipelines and the energy industry," LeVine said. "Russia has a history of using its petro-power as a blunt instrument to get what it wants."

Western nations have become increasingly involved in oil-producing countries in the Caspian region since the fall of the Soviet Union, when the area was opened to foreign investment.

The sudden influx of money could have serious ramifications for both the United States and those countries, some panelists said.

"What’s happening in the Caspian basin is an oil boom of historic proportions," said Michael Ross, a political science professor and director of the Center for Southeast Asia Studies. There is an unbelievable amount of new money flowing into these countries. This is maybe a once in a millennium opportunity to alleviate poverty and move forward with development ... but often these opportunities are squandered."

LeVine noted that several countries, including Kazakhstan and Russia, have said they will use their newfound wealth to buy Western assets, which could become problematic for relations with the U.S.

"There’s the question, what assets are they talking about? What are they going to do with that money?" LeVine said.

Several panelists criticized the U.S.'s current approach to the emergence of rich Caspian oil-producers.

Michael Intriligator, a professor of political science, economics and public policy, said the United States should be concerned about Russia becoming more economically and politically powerful.

"It seems to me that our country has kind of lost track of what's going on in the world ... of geopolitics, geoeconomics," he said.

The panelists added that American officials should be particularly worried that Russia holds U.S. Treasury bonds, which they could cash in for government cash.

"They could push us into a recession, if not a full depression. They hold that lever over our head," he said.

LeVine said he believes the United States has not completely abandoned a Cold War mentality, and has not adequately updated its approach to dealing with Russia.

While the United States plans to install missile systems in Eastern Europe the same way it did during the Cold War, Russia expands its power in more modern ways, such as by taking control of the energy industry, LeVine said.

Jared Fox, a graduate student in computer science and public policy at the UCLA school of public affairs and the panel's moderator, suggested the U.S. could invest more heavily in alternative energy sources as a way of countering Russia's influence.

Woodrow Clark, a lecturer at UC Riverside, also stressed the importance of renewable energy sources.

"We in the United States are going to be dependent on a very unstable supply of fuel ... we have got to do something to not be dependent on that supply of fuel," he said.

The discussion was the first in an event series aimed at addressing important regional issues around the world.

Media Relations