Putin and Chávez: Oil and gas strategies in Russia and Venezuela in the 21 Century

This Blog was written for the University of Westminster.


During the beginning of this millennium, the energy sector in various countries has experienced a renationalization wave of strategically important companies. Two of the most prominent examples are the nationalization of the entire sector in Venezuela under the Hugo Chávez administration (1998 – 2013) and the renationalization of formerly private owned oil and gas companies in Russia under the politics of Vladimir Putin (2000 – present). Russia and Venezuela; two countries based on the world’s opposite side with different sizes, different background, different political systems and different challenges, and yet intertwined with a remarkably comparable story since the beginning of this millennium. Two decades, formed by two politicians, both coming from a low-income family and sharing a military background. Both “Putinism” and “Chavinism” work(ed) with a strong state role, even to the extent of a de facto one-party state in Russia, and a general anti-American attitude. And despite coming from the opposite sides of the political spectrum, both Putin’s and Chávez’s political agenda reveals surprisingly many similarities especially when analysing the oil and gas sector (Boucher, 2014). Both countries heavily rely on commodities; They belong, at least in theory, to the world’s heavy weights in raw material abundance and oil and gas exports and, hence, are supposed to be wealthy countries. And beneficiary for the two leaders: They both came to power at a time that was defined by an increased oil and gas price which would become the backbone of their power or as Bohm (2013) put it in the Moscow Times: “Both used their huge oil windfalls to subsidize handouts and buy political support among the large segments of the population that are dependent on the state”. This essay describes the politics and strategies of the two long-term presidents, analyses the implication and importance of the oil and gas sectors, outlines the key players in the extraction of raw material within those two countries, and critically discusses success and failure of their politics.

Russia’s oil and gas politics under the Putin administration

Russia was and is a real heavyweight in the energy industry. It is the largest country in the world in terms of surface area, comprising the world’s largest gas, second largest coal, and eighth largest oil reserves. It is the world’s largest gas and the second largest oil exporter (EIA, 2017). About 40% to 50% of the Russian national revenue is generated by oil and gas businesses. Literature, hence, often define Russia as a “Petrostate” or an “Energy superpower” – a term that is also favoured by Vladimir Putin (Rutland, 2014). Clearly, the oil and gas sector is the driver of Russian’s economy and this is exactly were the country’s vulnerability starts: It depends (too) heavily on hydrocarbon products (Garrison and Song, 2018). If commodity prices rise, the Russian economy is doing well, if they decline, the country suffers. In addition, there is a strong dependence on the most important importers, who can cause lasting damage to the Russian economy through sanctions as seen after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. This chapter discusses Russian’s oil and gas strategy under the Putin administration and addresses the key players in the extraction of raw material.

When Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president of the Russian Federation, he did this with clear campaign pledges. Amongst all, he wanted to restore Russia’s reputation as a super power and bring back national pride (Dolgov, 2000). But during his presidency he also promised to raise living standards, keeping unemployment and inflation rate down, and to build a technological counterweight to the Silicon Valley (Bremmer, 2018). These pledges would come at a price, though, and the price was high. And Putin never hid that in his view raw materials are elementary to become an economic heavy-weight and consequently to reach his campaign pledges. In his dissertation which is not accessible publicly anymore, Putin emphasized that a tougher state regulation together with other market mechanisms are the way to go. But having said that, he also acknowledged the need of foreign investors (Jack, 2005). Jack (2005) describes this as the “blueprint for his subsequent economic policy”. Having this in mind it may not come as a huge surprise that his administration continuously increased its influence in the energy sector. But in order to understand Russia’s and Putin’s strategies and challenges in the oil and gas sector, one has to go back to the year 1990.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Jeltsin administration started a large-scale privatization process in the early 1990s. The goal of this approach was to attract (foreign) investors, boost the economy, and to start a healthy competition between the now privately-owned companies. The privatization process, however, did not go as smooth as intended and critics also claimed that Jeltsin had used revenues of the privatization to finance his own election campaign. As a result, a few Russian’s got very rich in the early 1990s but overall, this process did not lead to a higher prosperity. And a second issue arose quickly: the most valuable assets were gathered by a few oligarchs who suddenly played a dominant role in Russia’s economic system. Chernykh (2011) points out that Russia’s five biggest companies accounted for more than 20% of the country’s GDP and the top 100 companies, together, for up to 60% of the GDP. This situation was neither pleasing for the newly elected president, Vladimir Putin, nor for the Russian population. As Chernykh (2011) says: “Privatization in Russia, especially privatization of the national champions and a concentration of wealth in the hands of the few well-connected individuals, has not been accepted as legitimate or fair by a large part of the population”. After becoming president for the first time in 2000, Putin took over a country that had faced a “dark decade” and that was hoping for a change. The new strong man instantly tried to restore national pride. Rutland (2015) names the comeback of the Tsarist uniforms for the Kremlin guard, the return of the Soviet national anthem, or the revitalization of the Russian orthodox church as examples. Unfortunately, those examples were only the more peaceful approaches. Putin did not hesitate to demonstrate Russia’s strength by forced arms. “Putin’s victory in the second Chechen war, and his assertive presence on the international stage, helped to restore Russians’ sense of their country as a great power” Rutland (2014) says. Putin’s politics consequently required two main ingredients: a lot of money and the assurance that his administration had the power over all strategically important sectors – and not private individuals. And private individuals, in this case, meant Oligarchs, people to whom Putin had an ambiguous relation for a long time. On the one hand, they could be useful in bringing foreign capital to Russia and helping to restore the economy. They could also be very helpful during election campaigns. On the other hand they could also support Putin’s political opponents and sign contracts with foreign companies or even states, which was much to the displeasure of Putin. The solution for this balancing act: As long as the oligarchs danced according to the government’s whistle, they were tolerated, but if they played against Putin, they had to be prepared for consequences. The most sensational act in this relationship took place in 2003 and marked the beginning of the renationalization of strategically important companies: The takeover of a major part of Yukos and a year later the destruction of the same company. The official reason for this acquisition was to settle tax debts for alleged tax evasion. The acquired production unit was immediately integrated into the state-owned Rosneft. As suggested by Balzer (2005) the destruction of Yukos was “not inevitable” if their chairman Mikhail Khodorkovskiy, a well-known oligarch, had played according to Putin’s rules. This had consisted of an approval by the government of Yuko’s intended pipeline deal with China (the government had preferred to see a deal with Japan) and, perhaps, it had also included a less strong political role of their chairman. As said, this just marked the beginning of the renationalization of oil and gas companies. According to Chernykh (2011) the OECD Economic Survey found 29 major state acquisitions of private assets by 2006. The two most prominent actors in this game: The state-owned Gazprom and Rosneft.

The case of Gazprom, Russia’s biggest gas company, show how the administration proceeded. It was run as a privately-owned company until 2005 when the government increased its shares from around 40% to 51%. This changed the management structure of the company – most managers had now ties with the Putin administration – and transformed Gazprom into a state-run business (Yang et al., 2011). In the same year, Gazprom took over Sibneft, Russia’s third biggest oil company that was privatized in 1996 and renamed it “Gazprom Neft”. Today, Gazprom holds 95% of Gazprom Neft’s shares. Gazprom played and still plays an elementary strategic role in the relationship between Russia and Europe. Due to its geographical position, Russia was the easiest and cheapest partner to solve Europe’s energy deficit. And Gazprom was responsible for 58% of all gas imports to the EU in 2005. However, this relationship is risky for both sides. If Russia closes the gas tap, Europe will have a major energy supply problem. If Europe is no longer dependent on Russian gas, Russia will lose its most important trading partner. And this threat became real with the development of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), because, according to literature, gas tankers offer a cheaper possibility for Europe to import gas for a distance of more than 1000km (Yang et al., 2011). Russia’s strategy for tackling this problem included new long-term contracts and new pipelines linking Russia and the EU directly with the goal of avoiding third party countries like the Ukraine, as it had been the case in the past. Examples for this are the Nord Stream I pipeline which opened in 2011. The second approach is a diversification of customers. China, for example, is becoming increasingly important. A $400 billion contract between the two countries was signed in 2014 and guarantees Russia another source of income for the next 30 years. In return, Gazprom will supply 38 billion cubic meters of liquid gas to the land of the rising sun (BBC, 2014).

As this essay shows later in the case of Venezuela, the high dependence on oil and gas revenue in combination with NOCs which do not have to compete in a free market environment, as well as no or not enough investment in the energy sector, will cause severe troubles as soon as the oil and gas prices stagnate or decline. This rule also applies to Russia. During Putin’s first two terms, international commodity prices rose constantly. But in 2008, the the economic crisis came and prices fell or stagnated. Due to the lack of diversification, Russia was hit particularly hard. While Russia recorded an annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth of approximately 8% between 2000 and 2008, it collapsed completely in 2009 (The World Bank, 2019a). In 2009, Russia had to cope with a negative growth of -9% and since 2010 the growth has fluctuated between 0% and 6%. This had a significant impact on the Gross National Income (GNI). While the GNI per capita was $2,000 in 2000, it increased to $16,000 in 2013 (The World Bank, 2019b). In the last five years, though, it fell and is currently close to $10,000 – the lowest mark in ten years. Gazprom, extracting about 66% of Russian’s natural gas, had to face a declined productivity on its top-producing fields and strong monetary fluctuations in the home market during the last years – making it difficult to fulfil its obligation in Russia itself (Lunden et al., 2013). And then, in 2018, Putin had to announce that the government is raising the retirement age. As a consequence of all those happenings, several polls indicated that the trust in the administration had fallen to a 13-year-low (Roache, 2019). And yet, despite all this negative development there is good news for Russia: They are still much better off than Venezuela, as the next chapter will outline.

Venezuela’s oil politics under the Chávez administration

Venezuela underwent a huge political shift after Hugo Chávez was elected as president in 1998. Until his death in 2013, Chávez’ political agenda is often summarized as the Bolivarian revolution or the Bolivarian Process, named after the national hero Simón Bolivar who guided the country through the wars of independence. At the very core of this approach stood the idea of a broad social and political transformation in order to help the poor raising through the depression they have suffered in the decades before (Strønen, 2017). He also promised to reduce corruption and to bring the money back to the people (Wiseman and Béland, 2010). This socialist approach helped Chávez to become very popular amongst the poor population but was clearly against the agenda of the upper classes who had “enjoyed a near hegemonic position in Venezuelan society” as described by Strønen (2017), and it also heavily burdened the relations to the country’s most important export partner USA. Not surprisingly, Chávez ambitions where only doable with a lot of capital. And, as in Russia’s case, this capital would have to come from oil exports. This seemed to be reasonable having in mind that it is expected that Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves. As a result, controlling the oil industry was of crucial strategic importance and in Venezuela this meant that, apart from controlling the state owned Petróleos de Venezuela, SA (PDVSA), Chávez had to renationalize the entire oil sector. At this point it is worth mentioning that the government also nationalized cement, telephone, and power industries and implemented land reforms (Flores-Macías, 2010). He did this by passing 49 laws by decree in 2001, enabling him to take full control over the mentioned sectors (Tinker, 2015). This essay, however, only focuses on the development of the energy sector and its main actor, the national oil company PDVSA.

PDVSA was created in January 1976 as the result of the nationalization of the petroleum industry and is responsible for exploration and refining oil as well as petrochemicals and natural gas, including the export of those products (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019). The nationalization process was accompanied by “a significant increase in state income” (Mähler, 2011), resulting in higher salaries, import subsidies – but, unfortunately, also corruption. Mähler (2012) points out that the public sector grew between 1950 and 1981 from 6.7% to 24.4% and that a big share of the population was satisfied by those results (Koivumaeki, 2015). The 1990s started with a new system, though, the era of the Washington Consensus and neoliberal reforms. For Venezuela this meant that multinational corporations (MNCs) were welcomed again and various bilateral investment treaties (BITs) were signed (Koivumaeki, 2015). Wiseman and Béland (2010) describe that during the “apertura” (oil opening) by 1997 the royalties were lowered and that even PDVSA was allowed to partially privatize itself, leading foreign capital back into Venezuela. The goal of this idea was to develop crude oil in the Orinoco Belt with the help of foreign investment and it seemed to be successful as the country’s oil production rose to 3.5 million barrel per day (BPD) by 1998 – the highest peak Venezuela had reached since the early 1970s (Rapier, 2019). Yet, this was clearly not in the spirit of Venezuela’s socialists and just a year later, in 1998, Hugo Chávez came to power and made clear from the very beginning on that he intended to substantially change PDVSA, describing it a “black box” and a “state within a state” (Chávez Frias, 2005).

Despite the fact that the oil market was not the major topic of Chávez presidential campaign in 1998 nor that he seemed to be interested in attacking MNCs, it became obvious that he did understand the importance of the sector (Koivumaeki, 2015). He hosted an OPEC meeting in September 2000 and told PDVSA to respect the quotas defined by OPEC in order to increase the global oil price. His intentions became even clearer after passing the new Organic Hydrocarbon Law in 2001, claiming a 51% state ownership in all hydrocarbon companies and a 30% share for the government in all projects in this sector, and after appointing a befriended person as board member of PDVSA (Koivumaeki, 2015). This development, however, caused strong criticism amongst the old elites – and amongst PDVSA itself. In April 2012, Chávez became aware of this himself when a military coup tried to get rid of him. This coup led to nationwide demonstration in favour of Chávez and within 3 days he was back in office, but it hurt the relationship with one of the most important export countries: The United States. Chávez blamed them to have supported the coup and even though George Bush distanced himself from it, documents proved that the CIA at least knew of the attempt (Macias and Imbert, 2019). In December 2002, just eight months after the failed coup, a general strike broke out which was lit by the political opposition, trade unions, and several managers of PDVSA with the intention to force Chávez’ resignation (Nelson, 2013). It included a lockout of the employees and an interruption of the shipping lines, damaging Venezuela’s economy badly (GDP in 2003 decreased by 9.2%). The strike failed its main goal of getting rid of Chávez, but it took several months until finally all activities were resumed. As a consequence, the Chávez government dismissed 18,000 employees at once and appointed governmental-loyal employees instead (Mähler, 2011).

After those first five years of constant change and ambiguities, Chávez was finally able to take advantage of the oil prize that constantly rose. Venezuela’s GDP rose significantly in 2004 (17.9%) and 2005 (9.3%), enabling Chávez to increase social spending’s and reducing poverty rate from 49.99% in 1999 to 43.7% in 2005 (Wiseman and Béland, 2010). Based on the Bolivarian Mission, Venezuela’s government was now also able to support befriended countries such as Cuba (cheap oil in exchange for doctors) and they felt strong enough to end a military relationship between them and the United States. Unsurprisingly, this led to even bigger tensions in the US-Venezuelan relations despite the fact that still 50% of all oil exports were delivered to the US (Council on Foreign Relations, 2019). The increased oil revenues entailed another opportunity for Chávez, as suggested by Koivumaeki (2015); they empowered the government to renationalize the entire sector while being able to face the legal fines which would consequently follow. This process began with a new oil program implemented in October 2004, raising royalties on extra heavy oil projects from 1% to 16.67%. That was just the beginning, though. Between 2006 and 2007, operating agreements with MBCs were terminated by the administration and the associations were forced to sign joint ventures. This reversed the privatization process of the 1990s and established the old status quo, with PDVSA as the only remaining actor. Seeing their BITs being breached, Eni, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips thus headed to arbitration courts. In 2011, international arbitration courts penalized Venezuela with a $ 908 million fine as a damage payment for ExxonMobil and a year later ConocoPhillips was awarded $ 66.8 million against PDVSA. Both fines were paid immediately which gained Venezuela a reputation of being a respectful player. (Koivumaeki, 2015)

Unfortunately, renationalizing the oil sector resulted in a number of drawbacks. First of all, foreign expertise left the country and could not be replaced adequately, and PDVSA was run by governmental friendly executives who did not have much knowledge about the industry. And secondly, all the money was invested in Chávez’ social programs rather than being reinvested in the industry. This led to a constant decline of oil production, reaching less than 50% of its 2006-outcome in 2018 (Rapier, 2019). In combination with an oil price that had decreased, Venezuela suddenly had to accept a significant loss of revenue. Considering that oil accounted for 95% of all exports and almost 50% of all revenue generated, the outlook was not promising (The World Bank, 2019c). And then, on 5 March 2013, Chávez died and left the task of overcoming those problems to his successor. This burden, though, as it currently becomes apparent, has already become too big. Egan (2016) names five main reasons why the industry finally collapsed. First of all, Chávez (and later Maduro) failed to invest into the industry but rather pressed all money out of it. This resulted in a situation where the facilities became outdated and could not adopt to the naturally deterioration of the oil fields. The second issue are blackouts or power shortages which have become frequently in Venezuela and affected the capacity of the energy companies. While the government blames low water levels for this problem, the opposition rather points at corruption and mismanagement. Thirdly, with an inflation rate of more than 500%, both, oil companies and suppliers, are not capable of coping with the costs. The fourth reason, more generally, is also linked to the inflation rate: International companies (Mondelez, Pepsi, e.g.) stopped accounting for Venezuela’s sales. And the fifth reason mentioned by Egan (2016) but also by other analysts (Gramer, 2017) is the fact that Venezuela is so broken, that the cash shortage leads to a situation where they cannot even blend its very heavy crude oil with third party crude oil nor run the oil vessels and export oil to other countries. Gramer (2017) summarized this situation as “a vicious circle”.


Two countries, two presidents, two decades, one idea: (Re)nationalizing the energy sector in order to match the own agenda (Flores-Macías, 2010). For Chávez this included the nationalization of ExxonMobil, Chevron and other foreign companies, while Putin shattered Yukos and nationalized Gazprom and Rosneft (Bohm, 2013). Both leaders used the oil and gas money to fuel their political plans and to fix or enhance their economies – while for Venezuela this included mainly social welfare programs, Russia invested in national pride, a pension scheme, an infirm infrastructure left by the Soviet Union, and the development of the service sector. And now, almost 20 years later, both countries are in severe troubles which is to a large extend caused by their energy politics. Phrases such as “the oil curse” and “the Dutch disease” were applied for both countries. With a declined oil price and an old-fashioned and inefficient NOC, Venezuela is not capable of keeping its level of oil production (Reuters News Agency, 2017), ran completely out of money (Gramer, 2017), faces malnutrition, a huge emigration wave, demonstrations and an unclear political situation (Human Rights Watch, 2018). Despite the fact that Russia was not hit as hard as Venezuela, problems are similar: A declining oil and gas price in combination with sanctions after the annexation of the Crimea Peninsula has resulted in a stagnated economy, forced the government to increase the retirement age, and led to financial insecurity.

Is it fair to say then that a nationalized oil and gas sector is generally the wrong approach? In my opinion it is not. Other countries such as Norway (Equinor) or Saudi Arabia (Saudi Aramco) have proven that NOCs may indeed benefit the welfare of a country, making everyone better off. But this requires that those companies are not just seen as piggybank which can be squeezed out as much as desired. It is also essential that those companies are run by experts and not just politically befriended managers. And finally, governments need to diversify its economies in order to reduce the impact of a stagnating oil and gas price. Unfortunately, in Venezuela’s case, all of the given suggestions were neglected. Oil revenues accounting for 95% of all exports, throwing out foreign knowledge (Lerrick, 2018), no investments in the industry, and managers with no energy-related background have caused the collapse of the country with the world’s largest oil reserves. Despite many similarities between Russia and Venezuela there is one massive difference between the two leaders, though, as described by Bohm (2013). While Chávez left the political scene at the height of this popularity (although not on his own will) and does not have to face the collapse of his system, Putin does.


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