Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Happy Easter, everyone!

For the Easter of 2014, let me repropose my post on the dynamic modelling of the Easter egg hunt which, for some reason, has been the most successful post ever to be published (in 2012) on the former "Cassandra's Legacy" blog, now known as "Resource Crisis." -Happy Easter, everyone!

Here is a little Easter post where I try to model the Easter Egg hunt as if it were the production of a mineral resource. A simple model based on system dynamics turns out to be equivalent to the Hubbert model of oil production. We can have "peak eggs" and the curve may also take the asymmetric shape of the "Seneca Peak." So, even this simple model confirms what the Roman Philosopher told us long ago: that ruin is much faster than fortune. (Image from uptownupdate)

For those of you who may not be familiar with the Easter Bunny tradition, let me say that, in the US, bunnies lay eggs and not just that: for Easter, they lay brightly colored eggs. The tradition is that the Easter Bunny spreads a number of these eggs in the garden and then it is up to the children to find them. It is a game that children usually love and that can last quite some time if the garden is big and the bunny has been a little mean in hiding the eggs in difficult places.

A curious facet of the Easter Egg hunt is that it looks a little like mineral prospecting. With minerals, just as for eggs, you need to search for hidden treasures and, once you have discovered the easy minerals (or eggs), finding the well hidden ones may take a lot of work. So much that some eggs usually remain undiscovered; just as some minerals will never be extracted.

Now, if searching for minerals is similar to searching for Easter Eggs, perhaps we could learn something very general if we try a little exercise in model building. We can use system dynamics to make a model that turns out to be able to describe both the Easter Eggs search and the common "Hubbert" behavior of mineral production. The exercise can also tell us something on how system dynamics can be used to make "mind sized" models (to use an expression coined by Seymour Papert). So, let's try.

System dynamics models are based on "stocks"; that is amounts of the things you are interested in (in this case, eggs). Stocks will not stay fixed (otherwise it would be a very uninteresting model) but will change with time. We say that stocks (eggs) "flow" from one to another. In this case, eggs start all in the stock that we call "hidden eggs" and flow into the stock that we call "found eggs". Then, we also need to consider another stock: the number of children engaged in the search.

To make a model, we need to make some assumptions. We could say that the number of eggs found per unit time is proportional to the number of children, which we might take as constant. Then, we could also say that it becomes more difficult to find eggs as there are less of them left. That's about all we need for a very basic version of the model.

Those are all conditions that we could write in the form of equations, but here we can use a well known method in system dynamics which builds the equations starting from a graphical version of the model. Traditionally, stocks are shown as boxes and flows as double edged arrows. Single edged arrows relate stocks and flows to each other. In this case, I used a program called "Vensim" by Ventana systems (free for personal and academic use). So, here is the simplest possible version of the Easter Egg Hunt model:

As you see, there are three "boxes," all labeled with what they contain. The two-sided arrow shows how the same kind of stock (eggs) flows from one box to the other. The little butterfly-like thing is the "valve" that regulates the flow. Production depends on three parameters: 1) the ability of the children to find eggs, 2) the number of children (here taken as constant) and 3) the number of remaining hidden eggs.

The model produces an output that depends on the values of the parameters. Below, there are the results for the production flow for a run that has 50 starting eggs, 10 children and an ability parameter of 0.006. Note that the number of eggs is assumed to be a continuous function. There are other methods of modeling that assume discrete numbers, but this is the way that system dynamics works.

Here, production goes down to nearly zero, as the children deplete their egg reservoir. In this version of the model, we have robot-children who continue searching forever and, eventually, they'll always find all the eggs. In practice, at some moment real children will stop searching when they become tired. But this model may still be an approximate description of an actual egg hunt when there is a fixed number of children - as it is often the case when the number of children is small.

But can we make a more general model? Suppose that there are many children and that not all of them get tired at the same time. We may assume that they drop out of the hunt simply at random. Then, can we assume that the game becomes so interesting that more children will be drawn in as more eggs are found? That, too can be simulated. A simple way of doing it is to assume that the number of children joining the search is proportional to the number of eggs found (egg production). Here is a model with these assumptions. (note the little clouds: they mean that we don't care about the size of the stocks where the children go or come from)

This model is a little more complex but not so much. Note that there are two new constants "k1" and "k2" used to "tune" the sensitivity of the children stock to the rest of the model. The results for egg production are the following:

Now egg production shows a very nice, bell shaped peak. This shape is a robust feature of the model. You can play with the constants as you like, but what you get, normally, is this kind of symmetric peak. As you probably know, this is the basic characteristic of the Hubbert model of oil production, where the peak is normally called "Hubbert  peak". Actually, this simple egg hunt model is equivalent to the one that I used, together with my coworker Alessandro Lavacchi, to describe real historical cases of the production of non renewable resources. (see this article published in "Energies" and here for a summary)

We can play a little more with the model. How about supposing that the children can learn how to find eggs faster, as the search goes on? That can be simulated by assuming that the "ability" parameter increases with time. We could say that it ramps up of a notch for every egg found. The results? Well, here is an example:

We still have a peak, but now it has become asymmetric. It is not any more the Hubbert peak but something that I have termed the "Seneca peak" from the words of the Roman philosopher Seneca who noted that ruin is usually much faster than fortune. In this example, ruin comes so fast precisely because people try to do their best to avoid it! It is a classic case of "pulling the levers in the wrong direction", as Donella Meadows told us some time ago. It is counter-intuitive but, when exploiting a non renewable resource, becoming more efficient is not a good idea.

There are many ways to skin a rabbit, so to say. So, this model can be modified in many ways, but let's stop here. I think this is a good illustration of how to play with "mind sized" models based on system dynamics and how even very simple models may give us some hint of how the real world works. This said, happy Easter, everyone!

(BTW, the model shown here is rather abstract and not thought to describe an actual Easter Egg hunt. But, who knows? It would be nice to compare the results of the model with some real world data. My children are grown-ups by now, but maybe someone would be able to collect actual data this Easter!)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"Recursive Fury:" the reasons of Frontiers' blunder

As you probably know, the scholarly publisher "Frontiers" recently decided to retract an already approved and published paper ("Recursive Fury") on the subject of conspiratorial attitudes in the debate on climate change. This action prompted the resignation of some of Frontiers' editors, including myself, as I described in a previous post. Here, I return to this subject with more details. 

When I was contacted by the staff of "Frontiers" and asked to become "chief editor" with them, I thought it was an excellent idea. I was attracted, first of all, by the fact that the journal was completely "open access," an idea that I have always favored (I was probably one of the first to experiment with open access publishing in chemistry). So, I accepted the offer with considerable enthusiasm and I started to work on a journal (actually a section of a journal) called "Frontiers in Energy Systems and Policy".

Once an editor, I discovered the peculiar structure of the Frontiers system. It is a giant pyramidal scheme where each journal has sub-journals (called "specialties" in Frontiers' jargon). The pyramid extends to the people involved with the scientific editing: it starts with "chief editors" who supervise "chief specialty editors", who supervise "associate editors", who supervise "reviewers". Since each steps involves a growth of a factor 10-20 in the number of people, you can see that each journal of the Frontiers series may involve a few thousand scientists. The whole system may count, probably, tens of thousands of scientists.

Why this baroque structure? The official explanation is that it makes the review process go faster. In this, the pyramidal structure of Frontiers looks somewhat like a military "command and control" system which is, indeed, designed to speed up the communication/action process. Of course, if you enlist as an editor in Frontiers, you are not given orders by the layers above; nevertheless you are continuously pestered by communications and reminders about what you have to do and you are supposed to pass these communications to the layers below you. All these messages do push you to complete your assignments.

But my impression is that the pyramidal structure of Frontiers was not created just for speed; it had a a marketing objective. Surely, involving so many scientists in the process creates an atmosphere of participation which encourages them to submit their papers to the journal and this is where the publisher makes money, of course. This is a strategy typical of pyramidal marketing schemes, such as "multi-level marketing" I cannot prove that the structure of Frontiers was conceived in these terms from the beginning, but, apparently, they are not alien to use aggressive promoting tactics for their business.

As you may imagine, such a complex system brings many problems. First, the plethora of sub-journals makes the whole Frontiers system look like Borges' Chinese "Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge" - in short, a mess. Then, in the case of very large systems the problem of control is practically unsolvable: see Reagan's "Star Wars" as an example. Maybe Frontiers is not so complex as the old strategic defense initiative, but the problems are the same. Their Internet site is supposed to manage the activity of thousands (or perhaps tens of thousands) of scientists but, in my experience, it never really worked. And managing the whole system must require a considerable number of permanent staff. As a result, publishing with "Frontiers" doesn't come cheap.

So, after nearly one year of work with Frontiers, I was growing more and more perplexed. I had this feeling of being just a cog in a giant machine that didn't work very well and which had the only purpose of making money for the top layers of the pyramid. Please, do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with the idea of making money in the publishing business: absolutely not. It is also clear to me that if the publisher is a commercial enterprise, then it is their right to decide what to publish and what not to publish. The way Frontiers behaved with "Recursive Fury" shows this attitude in a crystal clear manner. Their management listened only to their lawyers and they took the decision that involved the lowest financial risk for them. It was not just an occasional blunder, it was the consequence of the decisional structure of the publisher.

Once this point was clear, it appeared also clear to me what the problem was: granted that a commercial publisher can publish what they want, who defends science (and in particular climate science) against special interest groups, lobbies, assorted anti-science groups and single madmen? You can't ask to do that to a commercial enterprise which is (correctly) focused on profit. But you can ask why so many scientists should give their time and their work for free to a commercial enterprise which doesn't appear to be really interested in defending science. At this point, my choice was obvious. I resigned as an editor of "Frontiers." Others did the same for similar reasons.

I hope that these notes help clarify my position in this story. As I said in my previous note, my resignation had nothing to do with the virtues (or the defects) of the paper titled "Recursive Fury." I am not qualified to make a judgment in that field and, anyway, this is not the point. The point I wanted to make - and I hope it is understood - is that we have to react against the climate of intimidation which is engulfing science, and in particular climate science. This climate of intimidation takes many forms and the case of "Recursive Fury" shows that it has now reached also scientific publishing. The problem, here, is not with a specific publisher. It is that we are stuck with a century old model of communication: expensive and ineffective and, worse, easily subverted by special interest groups (on this point, see for instance this post by Dana Nuccitelli).

So, what can we do? Initially, open access seemed to be a good idea to improve on the publishing process, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it may be causing more harm than good. In addition of having generated hundreds of low quality "predatory publishers,"  it is being appropriated by traditional publishers and turned into a way to extract even more money from scientific research budgets.

I still believe in open access publishing, but I think we have a lot of work to do if we want it to become the revolution in scientific communication we hoped it would be. That will take time and, for the time being, we are stuck with a system based on commercial publishers who are not necessarily keen to defend science in this difficult moment. But we can at least fight back if we refrain from publishing with journals which fail to defend science and even walk away from them as editors, as I did with Frontiers. That should give them at least a nudge in the right direction.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The West and Russia: a tit for tat game, part II

 By Tatiana Yugay 

In this post, Tatiana Yugay, Professor at the Moscow State University of Economics, Russia gives us some background to the recent events relative to the crisis in Ukraine. Image © Collage: Voice of Russia

I wrote earlier on about the first level of sanctions against Russia imposed on individual businessmen. At present, “All Quiet on the Western Front” (Im Westen nichts Neues) but it seems to be a brief lull before the storm (note by UB: this sentence was written a few days ago and it seems to have been prophetic). The main geopolitical actors are staying in full alert anticipating further steps of each other. After a certain agitation caused by launching of the first sanctions tool kit, the West is watching Russia's reaction (a disappointing one) and making guesswork about Putin's next move. Now it is more or less clear that the West and the Ukraine have accepted Crimea’s integration with Russia. It seems that they are going to continue with sanctions only in case of a Russian invasion of mainland Ukraine, which is highly improbable.

Second sanctions' level: Trying hard to avoid the boomerang effect

The main reason behind the pause taken by the West is the understanding that after undertaking clearly political individual sanctions the law of consequences demands more comprehensive economic sanctions to be imposed on the most sensible sectors of the Russian economy. The conflict of mighty economic interests serves as a watershed between the U.S. and the EU, which separates them in the form of no less than the Atlantic Ocean.

As for the U.S., sanctioning is their favorite game. At present, the U.S. has been imposing at least 24 different sanction regimes on different countries from the Balkans to Zimbabwe. Moreover, last week Washington gave a strong warning to China not to escalate territorial tensions in the Asia-Pacific region if it doesn’t want to face American retaliation. In his statement, a US official used sanctions on Russia over Crimea’s accession as an example. However, politicians and analysts express strong doubts about sanctions' efficiency. Even a rather hawkish Paul Pillar writes in his post “More Sanctioning Madness”: “The sanctions habit has persisted because imposing sanctions is a primitive, easy way to “do something” about difficult problems on which there is an urge to do something. It is a gesture. Congress needs to decide whether gestures are more important than making progress in getting out of the current crisis”.

In fact, there are very limited trade relations between Russia and the USA and therefore economic sanctions can't cause much harm to the Russian economy. According to the Federal Customs Service, Russia's trade turnover with the U.S. in 2013 was less than $28 billion, or 3.8% of Russia's foreign trade. Russian exports to the US accounted for $11.2 billion while imports were $16.5 bn, so the balance is more favorable for the U.S. than for Russia
Last week, NATO and NASA created a rather comic duo by declaring demonstratively that they want to sanction Russia, too. The fact is that Russia has very limited relations with both organizations. NASA posted on its Twitter and Facebook accounts a statement announcing the suspension of cooperation with Russia. NASA’s status on Facebook stated: “Given Russia's ongoing violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation.” I was rather surprised by this bold declaration and even thought that NASA'a accounts had been hacked. Ironically, exactly at this same period NASA’s astronaut Steven Swanson has been staying at the International Space Station together with two Russian astronauts Aleksandr Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev. It isn't very reasonable to turn a US citizen into a hostage of the Ukranian crisis. I tried to imagine possible ways out of this awkward situation. I could think of only two opportunities: Swanson could be deported from the station to extra vehicular activity (EVA) or, quite the contrary, would be granted Russian citizenship. Luckily for the US astronaut, his chiefs had specified a little bit later that they wouldn't suspend the ISS cooperation. As Deputy Prime Minister Dmitriy Rogozin wrote in his tweet, “NASA suspends cooperation with Roscosmos (Russian Federal Space Agency) with the exception of work on the ISS. Yet, apart from the ISS we didn't cooperate with NASA in any other way”. As a matter of fact, NASA's pompous declaration appeared to be much ado about nothing. George Abbey, former director of the Johnson Space Center, said in his interview to “Russia Today” that “the United States right now are totally dependent on our Russian partners. When we stopped flying the space shuttle, we did away with our access to take humans to space and we rely completely upon Russia. Russia does a very good job flying our crewmen up to the space station, so if that were to end, the US human flight program would not really be implemented in any fashion until 2017 or much later”. 
OK, what about NATO's demarche? Maybe it represents a real threat to Russia's national security? Actually, the only field where NATO and Russia have been fruitfully cooperating is Afghanistan. However, as I wrote in my previous post, NATO had already declared that it had unilaterally suspended all cooperation with Russia on drug trafficking. This display of political muscles takes place precisely at the time when NATO is preparing to conclude the withdrawal of the last 50 thousand troops from Afghanistan. The infamous retreat of NATO's forces will take place this summer and the Command of International Forces will be badly in need of Russia's assistance, namely, in providing transit services for troops withdrawal. At that, NATO hurried to precise that it didn't mean suspending the cooperation on Afghanistan.

On April 1st, the NATO issued a communiqué where it declared that it would restrict the access for Russian diplomats in its headquarters. A very good April Fool's joke, indeed! And what if Russia retaliates by forbidding access to the "northern corridor" for the transit of NATO's troops through its territory?! In this case, the international troops would be forced to march through Pakistan, which is much more dangerous because of the activity of the Pakistani Taliban in the country's northern provinces. Big groups of vehicles carrying military personnel and cargo could become an easy target for ambushes, terrorist and mine attacks. Thus, uncontested withdrawal of troops through Pakistan would be fraught with greater losses of manpower and military equipment.

Unlike their NASA's and NATO's colleagues, Russian officials seem to be maintaining a more mature position. Russia's Roscosmos space agency is not preparing to retaliate against NASA in connection with the latter's imposition of sanctions. Deputy head of Roskosmos Denis Lyskov said, "All the projects that have significance for Roscosmos are running in international format in the first place. NASA sanctions do not apply to them," he reiterated. The International Space Station is not a bilateral program, although the USA and Russia are among the key participants. "Suspending work within the framework of this program would result in serious consequences for everybody," Lyskov said.

Russian Foreign Ministry Lavrov regards NATO's decision to limit the access for Russian diplomats to its headquarters in Brussels as reflecting the persistent "Cold War" mentality among the alliance's officials. "We noted that information about the move was posted on the main page of NATO's official website. It looks like access by Russian diplomats to the NATO office is the North Atlantic alliance's number one problem," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

In the best traditions of political farce, US senators Dan Coats and Mark Kirk sent a letter to FIFA requesting the international governing organization for soccer to strip Russia from its right to host the World Cup in 2018 and also ban it from this year's edition of the event which will be hosted by Brazil. FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke explained US lawmakers in his response letter that FIFA rules and regulations do not apply to a "entities outside the pyramidal structure of the game of football". He added that individual teams could not be banned from a competition because of actions by their parent states.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, commenting on US, NATO's and NASA'sfeverish activity to threaten Russia with sanctions, gave them a very helpful recommendation. “What can we advise our American colleagues to do? Spend more time outdoors, do some yoga, have healthy food, probably, watch more comedy series on TV. That would be better than working yourselves and others up, knowing that the train has already departed and that no tantrums, crying and hysterics can help”.

Meanwhile, the American public gives little support to USA's engagement in Ukraine. According to a new Reason-Rupe poll, 58 percent of the 1,003 respondents said they do not want America to be involved in the crisis whatsoever–not economic sanctions, not military action. This may be indicative of weariness about adding a new chapter to America's legacy of international entanglements. Only eight percent of respondents considered sending military troops and assets to be the right course of action for America; and only thirty-one percent think the U.S. should continue imposing economic sanctions on Russia. "If Russia attempts to invade additional parts of Ukraine, would you favor or oppose [sending US troops to Ukraine]?" non-interventionist sentiments remained high. Sixty-two percent of people polled would still be opposed to sending military aid and weapons. Though, when asked a similar question about stricter sanctions, 61 percent said they would approve.

The discord in the European communal home

Obama's tour was dedicated to rally the international community in order to isolate Russia, but the European leaders are reluctant to punish themselves together with Russia. It isn't at all surprising since, unlike the U.S., the European Union has developed very strong economic ties with Russia. The EU trade turnover with Russia stands at almost $410 billion euros, or nearly 15 times more than the Russia-US trade turnover. According to the Eurostat, Russia is the EU's third most important trading partner, behind the USA and China and accounts for 7 percent of imports and 12 percent of exports of the EU. The introduction of sanctions may lead to a considerable financial losses for the EU while the region is slowly coming out from the Great Recession.

On the aftermath of the EU summit on March 20th and 21st, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told that the European Union has not yet made a decision on possible practical trade and economic sanctions against Russia. He said the European Commission (EC) was considering all economic sectors, but had not reached an agreement on the specific economic measures against Russia; and the timeframe for the coordination of these measures had not been specified. Many European countries opposed trade war with Russia during the EU summit on March 20th and 21st. "Escalating the conflict around Ukraine would have catastrophic consequences both for the parties to the conflict and Europeans", Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo said.

There isn't even accord among the EU's main stakeholders. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, made strong political statements, threatening Russia with "massive political and economic damage". At the same time Merkel also believes that the West “has not reached a stage that requires the imposition of economic sanctions” against Russia, as advocated by US President Barack Obama. “And I hope we will be able to avoid it,” she said. Germany is very much involved in economic relations with Russia with trade turnover about 76 billion euros in 2013. The imposition of sanctions has been strongly opposed by German businesses. More than 6,000 German firms and over 300,000 jobs are dependent on Russian partners with the overall investment volume of 20 billion euros. In addition, Germany heavily relies on Russian energy with around 35 percent of its natural gas imports coming from Russia.

The discord between the EU members is based on their unwillingless to hit Russia's sector of economy which is more connected with their own economy. Thus, Britain and France have exchanged unpleasantries over the fact that Paris was not strict enough in regard to Moscow as it had not refused to sale helicopter carriers to Russia. In its turn, London was unable to show the French an example and freeze multibillion assets of Russian businessmen.

A hint made by French FM Laurent Fabius that Paris may give up the contract for building Mistral-class amphibious assault ships for Russia as part of the western countries' economic sanctions against the Russia, caused a strong discontent in France. Apart from damaging 600 workers occupied in the manufacturing, the collapse of the deal can negatively affect the financial soundness of DCNS (Direction des Constructions Navales). According to Le Figaro, Moscow has already paid 1.2 billion euros to Paris, or more than a half of the contract sum. If breach of contract is also included in the economic sanctions package against Russia, France will have to pay the break fee. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yury Borisov said, "Of course, Russia will defend its right to the end in accordance with the agreements concluded and will demand repayment of all damages we could sustain in the case that the Mistral contract is broken off".

The best kept secret about these Mistrals is in the fact that ahead of concluding the contract in 2011, there were hot debates in the Russian defense sphere about appropriateness of commissioning these vessels abroad whereas the national defense industry was quite capable to build aircraft carriers on its own. The Russian United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC) has already noticed that it would finish building the ships in case of cancellation of the contract, taking into account that the USC had already received the most part of the technical documentation on the "Mistral" from the French shipbuilder. French President Francois Hollande hurried to declare that France will continue implementing the contract on supplying the two Mistral vessels to Russia. France is complying with the conditions of the agreement signed, the parties are not at a stage of dissolving the contract and it is hoped that this will be avoid. This little story with happy end illustrates how the boomerang effect works.

Not only the big European economies express their concern but also the smaller ones. Latvia has so far voiced the biggest concern over sanctions against Russia, as the adverse effect would hit it the hardest compared to all the EU member states. The country could lose up to 10 percent of its GDP, as the action against Russia could have a big adverse effect, according to the country’s Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma. Latvia also said that the EU should compensate any countries hurt by sanctions against Russia.

A boomerang never misses to hit back

The European leaders are seeking how to punish Russia and at the same time not to hit their own economies. In fact, Russia shouldn't work very hard in order to retaliate against its European counterparts. As a prominent US trader Jim Sinclair ironically said, slapping of sanctions on Russia is tantamount to shooting oneself in the foot. On a more serious tune, Euro MP Pino Arlacchi admitted, “The EU sanctions against Russia would cripple the European economy instead. The position of the European Union should be different from the US position. Europe should not insist on the extension of sanctions. These sanctions are unwise. In fact, they are directed against us".

The most vulnerable point in the EU-Russian relations is Europe's energy security. Russia is currently the world’s largest crude producer and ­second-largest gas producer. In 2012, the European Union’s bill for Russian oil and gas amounted to $156.5 billion, says the International Trade Centre’s Trade Map. European members of the Paris-based International Energy Agency imported 32% of their raw crude oil, fuels and gas-based industrial feedstocks from Russia that same year. According to the U.S. Energy Department in Washington, collectively, the EU, Turkey, Norway, Switzerland and the Balkan countries got 30% of the natural gas they burned from Russia last year. The EU as a whole accounts for about one-third of Russia’s exports, 40 percent of which pass through Ukraine.

The picture bellow clearly shows the dependence of individual EU countries on Russian gas, varying from zero in case of the UK and to 100% (Finland, Lituania, Latviya, Estonia). In the case of Italy, which depends for 90 percent on imports for its gas needs; 29% of the supplies come from Russia, which is the biggest.

I'm not a fan of The Economist's biased attitude towards Russia but as an economist I'm fond of maps, tables and charts etc. So I highly recommend to read an article with an eloquent title Reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian gas is possible—but it will take time, money and sustained political will. The author studies the case of high indebtedness of Ukraine to Russia's energy company Gazprom. “Ukraine already owes Gazprom $1.7 billion, according to Mr Miller. If Ukraine continues failing to pay its bills—and without outside help, it can't pay—Gazprom can cut it off. Such a dispute need not, in principle, have any effect on the gas that flows through Ukraine to other countries farther west. But if Gazprom reduces the flow of gas to reflect the fact that Ukraine no longer has a right to its 28bcm, and Ukraine takes some of that gas anyway, or if Gazprom shuts down the pipelines going through Ukraine completely, Europe’s supplies get hit. Europe gets 24% of its gas from Russia, and half of that—80bcm a year—passes through Ukraine”.

I'd like to admit that The Economist doesn't consider EU sanctions or Russia's retaliation but only a possibility of suspending gas supplies to Ukraine. The article examins different opportunities, such as gas sharing among the EU consumers, Norwegian exports, American shale gas, imports of LNG from the Middle East and even... Russian supplies via the Nord Stream. Finally, The Economist makes a rather ambivalent conclusion, “Though making a real dent in Europe’s reliance on Russian gas will take political will, money and the best part of a decade, merely moving in that direction will shift the balance of power, because it will signal a fundamental truth: in the end, the Kremlin needs its European customers at least as much as they need Russian imports”.

According to US-based financial research company Sanford C. Bernstein & Co, Europe will have to spend up to $215 billion through investments if it decides to stop buying Russian natural gas. The company considered "various scenarios of Europe refusing Russian gas supplies but none of them seem attractive" and arrived at conclusion that "the cure is worse than the illness".

Danny Vinik reasonably writes in “New Republic”, “the EU can impose its own sanctions against Russian individuals and entities. They will carry much more force than anything the U.S. does, because the EU does more than $400 billion of trade with Russia each year. This is a double-edged sword, though. For instance, if the EU prohibits Eurozone businesses from purchasing Russian natural gas and oil, it would significantly impact the Kremlin’s finances. But it would also leave the Eurozone nations without a vital energy supply, increasing the price of gas and oil and potentially leading to shortages. That's made countries like Germany hesitant to support sanctions".

An American cure from the Russian gas addiction

When I first heard an interview by Giulietto Chiesa, (http://youtu.be/GxeLAAyue_k) who said that all the Ukranian crisis was inspired by the U.S. in order to sell shale gas to Europe, I decided that the whole idea was a little bit exaggerated. Being a follower of Ugo Bardi's blog, I know that the American shale revolution is well over. You can imagine my surprise when Obama in his Hague speech declared the shale gas as a panacea from Europe's dependence on Russian gas. I asked Ugo to comment on this sensational statement. As I expected, he called the American idea to sell gas to Europe a mad one and advised me to read Gail Tverberg's articles. In her article “The Absurdity of US Natural Gas Exports”, Tverberg gives a comprehensive analysis explaining why America's gas crusade to Europe is ill-intentioned not only against Russia but Europe, as well.

Gail Tverberg writes, Another issue is that with shale gas, we are the high cost producer. There is a lot of natural gas production around the world, particularly in the Middle East, that is cheaper. If we add our high cost of shale gas to the high cost of shipping LNG long-distance across the Atlantic or Pacific, we will most definitely be the high cost producer. Other producers with lower costs (even local shale gas producers) can undercut our prices. So at best those shipping LNG overseas are likely to make mediocre profits. And there would seem to be great temptation to stir up trouble, to encourage Europe to buy our natural gas exports, rather than Russia’s. Of course, our ability to provide this natural gas is not entirely clear. It makes a good story, with lots of “ifs” involved: “If we can really extract this natural gas. If the price can really go up and stay up. If you can wait long enough.” The story makes the US look more rich and powerful than it really is. We can even pretend to offer help to Ukraine”.

Third sanctions' level: the credibility of the Iranian model

At the beginning of sanctions' hysteria, there was much talk about applicability of Iranian type of sanctions against Russia. The Iranian sanctions regime had three components. First, it included prohibitions on oil, tanker fleets, and the insurance industry, which grounded the Iranian oil trade to a halt and cost the country many billions of dollars in export revenue. Second, banking sanctions cut off Iran from the international banking system, making it virtually impossible for the country to engage in any form of international commerce. And third, Obama invoked the U.S. International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), which allowed him to block Iranian assets subject to U.S. jurisdiction (such as those belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its various commercial and logistical affiliates) and made it illegal for U.S. citizens to do business with designated persons or companies.

The US hawks were citing US success which forced Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to start talks with the U.S. on the Iranian nuclear problem. The reality was quite different, not Rouhani but Obama himself called him on September 27, 2013, after the 68th UN General Assembly meeting on Syria where he failed to promote military intervention to Syria. In the best traditions of the US propaganda, his call to Rouhani was declared as a big strategic victory of the US sanctions' policy. However, more sober researchers question the efficiency of the Iranian model. Andrew Cockburn said, The Joint Plan of Action agreed to last fall between Iran and the so-called P5-plus-1 negotiating team — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany — stipulated that Iran would not continue to enrich uranium to levels above 5%, implicitly recognizing that Tehran can enrich uranium. All those years of throttling the Iranian economy, impeding even shipments of food and medicine, for this?”

Lee S. Wolosky in his article “How to Sanction Russia: And Why Obama's Current Strategy Won't Work” reluctantly admits, ”the sanctions against Russia would be missing two components that made the ones on Iran work: energy and banking. Energy accounts for 70 percent of Russia’s annual exports, so energy sanctions could, in principle, be a meaningful tool for rebuking Russia. But much of Russia’s oil and natural gas (unlike Iran’s) goes significantly to Europe, and Europeans have not been willing or eager to change that quickly. And without adequate preparation, such sanctions could cause a shock to world oil markets that could undermine the global economic recovery”. In his interview to Dimitri K. Simes at The National Interest, Sergey Glazyev, an adviser on Ukraine to President Putin estimated the possible consequences of Iranian type sanctions.

If we assume that they would adopt sanctions against Russia similar to those against Iran, according to our calculations, this would cost the EU 1 trillion euro. The sanctions would disproportionately affect the Baltic republics: for example, the potential losses for Estonia are estimated at the size of Estonia’s annual GDP; Latvia and Lithuania would incur losses the size of half of their annual respective GDPs; Germany would incur a loss of 200 billion euro”.

Among all crazy suggestions which has been overflooding these days the Western mass media, I really liked only one reasonable idea. Juan C. Zarate calls to “a broader effort that marginalizes illicit and suspect financial behavior — not just those activities tied to the invasion of Ukraine. This should be a conduct-based campaign that moves banks and companies to reconsider doing business and investing in Russia... Such a campaign would entail aggressive investigations of illicit financial activity of Russian interests globally — tied to concerns about money laundering, corruption, tax evasion and links to Russian organized crime”. Why do I appreciate this proposition? Mainly, because it coincides with Putin's struggle against offshores and corruption. If the international community would take part in this fight, then illegal businesses would really feel that they won't find refuge in safe havens under US and UK jurisdiction and return in Russia. Such kind of sanctions would turn into a real benefit for Russia.

At the time being, Europe resorts to toothless political bites which are intended to rise its own self-esteem but, instead, exposes it in a rather unflattering light. Recently, the Council of Europe (PACE) passed a resolution that puts all the blame for the Ukrainian crisis on Moscow and also deprived the Russian delegation of voting rights and the right to participate in the governing bodies of the Assembly til the end of the year.

Observers can notice that currently Russia has been restraining from backbites. Meantime, Russia has a broad scope of more efficient means of retaliation...

(To be continued)