Want to make a former KGB colonel's day? Simple. Climb into your SUV and cruise your city. Turn up your home or store air conditioner on a warmish day. Or choose another way to waste energy. You will bring a smile to Vladimir Putin's face and a bulge to Russia's national wallet.
Not directly, of course. But by continuing to live unmeasured lives when it comes to energy consumption, too many Americans could unconsciously help Putin achieve his strategic objective of making Russia a second Saudi Arabia.
That is, the Russian president would translate his country's bountiful natural gas and oil reserves into political influence and power abroad. In return for "energy security," the United States and Europe would presumably leave Putin alone as he tightened political control at home and waged a brutal counterinsurgency in Russia's Chechnya province.
The framework for such a strategy -- with the realpolitik details discreetly omitted -- was sketched by Putin in Moscow earlier this month as he prepared to travel to Germany, the United Nations and then to Washington for his meeting with President Bush on Friday. Trading energy supplies for wealth and influence was on his mind and on his agenda.
Russia is not unique in wanting to gain influence through its oil and gas exports. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, to which Russia does not belong, exists for that purpose. But Russia's size, history, continuing ambitions and concerns in the Eastern and Central European areas it once controlled as the Soviet Union, and its vast nuclear arsenal, make it a special case that needs special attention.
So does the timing of its arrival as a global energy superpower. Surging demand from China and India, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, a global war on terrorism centered on the Middle East and Central Asia and other events have rocked energy markets and created unprecedented fluidity in alignments between producers and consumers.
Whatever his intentions, Putin sits at the center of an emerging global chessboard of power. Unless U.S. policymakers are prepared to meet his price, they should be working toward new international frameworks of their own to bring predictability, transparency and stability to relations between energy producers and consumers. Conservation, while important, is not enough by itself to cure the world's malignant oil economy.
The sharp climb of oil prices this year above $60 a barrel has already helped the Kremlin solidify its grip at home, where Russians have never looked or felt more prosperous as a group. Producing 9 million barrels of oil a day and exporting two-thirds of that means money to raise salaries and pay off pensioners who were marching in the streets in January over changes in benefits.
But as Kremlin coffers have swelled since 2003, Putin has stopped making serious economic reforms. He has stifled meaningful dissent at home and tightened control by himself and a few aides over oil and gas companies and the vital energy distribution system.
In a discussion with a group of foreign visitors to the Kremlin two weeks ago, Putin displayed an extraordinary command of detail on cubic meters exported, pipeline routes planned and fees charged in the oil and gas business as he laid out hopes to establish "energy alliances" with foreign nations.
He heralded the beginning this month of liquid natural gas exports to the United States under a complicated swap arrangement and said he would discuss that topic with Bush. Russian energy exports to the United States are in fact small, but Putin sees their potential and their symbolism as important to his political strategy. And in a global market, energy waste in the United States drives up the price of all resources, including those from Russia.
Putin also announced that he would make energy security a major topic for the Group of Eight summit that he will chair next year in St. Petersburg, emphasizing that Russia will be a reliable supplier to its industrial partners no matter what. He seemed to envision the arrangements he has reached with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder -- who has lavishly praised Putin as "a true democrat" and personal friend -- as a model for other nations.
It may be that Putin aspires not to be a new Stalin but to be a new Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the flamboyant but shrewd Saudi who acted as world oil czar in the 1970s.
The United States should not encourage the Saudification of Russia by seeking to guarantee energy security while ignoring internal repression and lack of reform. The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and other events have amply demonstrated that one Saudi Arabia treated like that is more than enough.