Richard Morningstar and a Eureka moment

At the start of this week, I picked up at my nearby post office in Brussels an eagerly awaited parcel containing the Fifty-fifth Reunion Report of my Harvard Class of 1967. In the days since, I have been wading through its dense texts. It is among the most interesting of all such quinquennial Reports because of the new openness of my classmates about what makes them tick, where they derive their pleasure and see their contribution in life, rather than the traditional recitations of career landmarks. I believe that Covid 19 and staring mortality in the face brought about this change for the better.  However, that is a subject for another note.

Here, I focus on the mental processes unleashed when I came across the entry of Richard Morningstar, one of my more notorious classmates, notorious in the same way as another nestling of 1967, Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of Homeland Security, appointed by Bush Junior: they were the most visible implementers of wrong-headed U.S. Government policies that led to our current confrontation with Russia, in the case of Morningstar, and, in the case of Ridge, to a sharp erosion in the country of civil liberties and to a new McCarthyism that is still with us.

As I reached Morningstar’s entry, I had to stop for a moment to reflect on what his name meant to me. Up came the recollection of an essay I had written about him in 2012 entitled “Letter to a Wayward Classmate.”  You can find that in my first collection of essays on Russian-American relations published in 2013 as  Stepping Out of Line, currently available from in paperback and e-book formats. 

From a career in law and private business, Morningstar leveraged his work on behalf of the Democratic Party, including major fundraising responsibilities and personal contributions of cash, into a second career in government service as advisor, then coordinator and ultimately ambassador and U.S. coordinator of relations with Europe over Eurasian, and in particular, Caspian Sea energy resources. The tasks he was given were first formulated in 1998 by then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. They followed from the recommendations on containing Russia advanced by her former academic supervisor and mentor, Zbigniew Brzezinski. 

Most everyone interested in the development of U.S. policy on Russia after the fall of Communism is aware of Brzezinski’s contribution to the intellectual debate from his best-selling book The Grand Chessboard, which focuses on geopolitics. However, ‘Zbig’ also took an assignment Albright offered him that we may call economic warfare on Russia: the creation of what became the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline which brings Azerbaijani oil to world markets via Turkish networks and, most importantly, redirects such exports away from Russian pipelines and ports, which had been the traditional routes dating from the Soviet Union. Morningstar was the key participant in this project, which opened commercially in 2006 well after the Democrats lost the presidency and Morningstar was temporarily sidelined.  However, this background served him well in the next Democratic administration, under Obama, bringing him to leading positions in new projects of the “Pipeline Wars” with Russia.

Let us recall that Russia’s phoenix like rise in the new millennium from the nadir of its 1998 default was largely due to energy exports once global demand and prices recovered from the global financial crisis that preceded Russia’s implosion. All attempts by Washington to set free Azerbaijani and, still more promising in volume, Turkmenistani gas supplies from control by Gazprom through building of pipelines outside Russian territory and connecting to European consumers could only bring Russia to its knees economically if successful.

I can heartily recommend several other chapters in Stepping Out of Line which provide details on the ‘Great Game’ of the period 2008-2010, when there were competing projects from Russia (the so-called South Stream) and from the EU-US (what was known as ‘Nabucco’ or ‘the new Silk Road’). As we now know , the latter was stymied by Russian and Azerbaijani measures depriving it of necessary gas volumes to justify the investment. And the Russian ‘South Stream’ was frustrated by successful last minute U.S. pressure on Bulgaria, a crucial participant. However, the Russians may be said to have won the contest by negotiating and building their alternative ‘Turkstream’ gas pipeline.

Note:  there was no potential economic benefit to the United States from any of its own or EU-proposed pipelines, since the suppliers would be ‘Eurasian’ and since the US had no gas of its own to offer, the fracking revolution still not having realized its potential at the time. The only motive on the part of the United States was geopolitical, to destroy the Russian economy.

It also should be noted that the nearly frantic efforts by the United States to cut Russia out of the European gas market in the first Obama administration followed from the sharp confrontation of these Powers before, during and after the Russian-Georgian War of 2008. Under Obama, these efforts were in full contradiction with the highly publicized policy of ‘reset’ and accommodation to negotiate new arms control agreements. The anti-Russian efforts on the economic front were further heightened by the consequences of the Russian-Ukrainian ‘gas war’ of 2009 when a dispute over payments and over illegal Ukrainian siphoning of gas for its own use from the distribution system led to a shutdown of Russian gas supply via Ukraine in mid-winter.  These developments allowed Morningstar and other U.S. representatives to beat the drum over the alleged undependability of Russian supplies to Europe and over the alleged Russian monopoly that had to be broken if Europe were to enjoy energy independence.

It is against this background that we have to understand the recent sanctions on Russian gas and oil which the United States imposed and forced Europe to comply with in exchange for the continued security umbrella of NATO.  These sanctions and their logic had a history of their own which I invite readers to follow in the essays mentioned above.

In this respect, Vladimir Putin’s remark in the past few months that the sanctions were developed as a form of unfair business competition for the sake of replacing Russian gas supplies with LNG from the United States is inaccurate. The U.S. interest today remains primarily geopolitical: to remove dependence on Russian supplies from the thinking of European policy makers and to enforce the United States domination of Europe.

Joe Biden brought a lot of Cold War and 1990s baggage with him to the presidency in 2021. The notion of driving Russia to its knees by depriving the country of its European consumers for gas and oil was a dated notion that just does not work in 2022.  Russia began actively developing its Eastern markets for gas and oil in….the very same period as the Pipeline Wars, namely 2009.  It was in that year that Russia finally concluded its commercial contracts with China for massive credits to be used to develop its Eastern Siberian gas fields and to lay down pipelines to serve the 20 year supply commitments enshrined in the contracts with Beijing. It was in that year that Russia opened the Sakhalin-1 LNG facility which instantly became a supplier of 7% of Japan’s total gas requirements and from which the Japanese government has refused to withdraw in the past month despite Russia’s tough new law on Sakhalin ownership and financial management simply because this gas supply is crucial to its economy.  Back in 2009, we foresaw 25% of Russian hydrocarbons being sold in Asia.  European sanctions of this year have vastly accelerated Russia’s pivot to Asia which will continue for years to come.

By the way, as regards Mr. Morningstar, he now describes himself as semiretired and we may assume that he is no longer pursuing mischief in Europe or Eurasia. His professional mission has been achieved without his intervention thanks to the Biden administration boys. However, old consultants never fall silent: Morningstar continues to serve as founding chairman of the Global Energy Center at the Atlantic Council.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

3 thoughts on “Richard Morningstar and a Eureka moment

  1. Recently, some commentators who I’ll identify noting they are Greek and reside in London and Athens, made the point that more and more nations are doing business in Yaun and Rubles to bypass USD and – the important part – not even trying to hide the fact. And Saudi Arbaria exploring a Yuan-Petro currency. Why, it was barely 10 or do years such things got you instantly regime changed (Libya). The world is changing.


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