Follow the Carbon If You Want to Understand What Will Happen Next in Putin’s Ukrainian Adventure

By Tom Yulsman | March 3, 2014 11:54 am
Earth at Night follow the carbon

A nighttime view captured by the Suomi NPP satellite stretching from Western Europe at left to East Asia at right. In addition to the lights from cities, flaring gas in Siberian oil fields are clearly visible in the circled areas. (Source: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC)

As Russian forces have taken complete control of the Crimean Peninsula, little action to counter this violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty seems forthcoming from the nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. At least for now.

As the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday:

European heavyweights like Germany and France appeared to rule out any moves that might lead to a widening confrontation with Russia, such as military action or even economic sanctions.

Even a boycott of the upcoming Group of Eight summit in Sochi, site of the recent Olympics, doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

Why the reticence to take even mild steps to counter Vladimir Putin’s invasion of a sovereign nation? Several factors are at work, including Russia’s integration with Western economies.

And if you want to understand that particular fact on the ground, you should follow the carbon.

Start with the image above. Captured by the Suomi NPP satellite, it shows Eurasia at night. In addition to city lights, you can see the bright glow generated by flaring natural gas in the vast Siberian oil and gas fields. (In the circled areas.)

Here’s a close up view of Russian energy development in Siberia acquired during the day by the Landsat satellite:

Noyabr'sk oil fields follow the carbon

A Landsat view of Siberian oilfields near Noyabr’sk acquired on June 18, 2012. The tan colors show what appear to be a network of roads and well pads. The dark areas are ponds and marshes. (Source: USGS)

Russia is the world’s second-largest producer of dry natural gas, and the third largest producer of liquid fuels, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The country holds the world’s largest natural gas reserves, with 1,688 trillion cubic feet. That amounts to about a about a quarter of the world’s total proven reserves, most of which are in Siberia.

As for oil, in 2012 Russia had roughly 7.2 million barrels total liquid fuels available for export every day.

Where’s all that stuff going? Have a look:

Russian Natural Gas Exports follow the carbon

Russian Oil Exports follow the carbon

As the WSJ article puts it:

Countries ranging from Italy to the Czech Republic count on Russian supplies for their energy security. Germany, the bloc’s economic powerhouse, is the biggest importer of Russian gas, which covers just under a third of Germany’s overall gas needs, and is Russia’s third-largest trade partner. German companies had $22 billion in direct investments in Russia in 2013.

Energy and trade help explain Germany’s reluctance to impose economic sanctions on Russia.

But it takes two to tango: Oil and gas revenues accounted for 52 percent of Russian federal budget revenues and over 70 percent of total exports in 2012, according to the EIA.

I’m a science journalist with a penchant for visual communication, not an expert in geopolitics. But I’m thinking that with Russia and much of Europe —  especially Germany —  joined at the hip like this, the economic risks that Putin would run from further military adventures in Ukraine would mount significantly. So I’m betting this is as far as he’ll go.

Of course this assumes that economic considerations will trump others. They may not. As Julia Ioffe put it in the New Republic over the weekend:

. . . Putin and those around him are, fundamentally, terminal pessimists. They truly believe that there is an American conspiracy afoot to topple Putin, that Russian liberals are traitors corrupted by and loyal to the West, they truly believe that, should free and fair elections be held in Russia, their countrymen would elect bloodthirsty fascists, rather than democratic liberals. To a large extent, Putin really believes that he is the one man standing between Russia and the yawning void. Putin’s Kremlin is dark and scary, and, ultimately, very boring.

What that might mean for further developments in Ukraine is your guess as good as mine. But while you’re guessing, make sure to follow the carbon.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellaneous, Remote Sensing
  • michael arazan

    Great, Putin is starting to sound like another paranoid Stalin, hopefully without the blood lust. The US has its own problems, UK too, and the rest of Europe could care less about Putin and his totalitarian dictatorship ways. The cat has been out of the bag that Putin does not want to step down and relinquish power. Everyone knows he’s corrupt as every other rich 1% from all other countries. The rich take from the poor for themselves and their friends with power and money, in every country today, how much is enough for all these 1%’s.

    Putin should just offer to buy Crimea for 40-70 billion, Russia gets Crimea and Ukraine gets a stable economy back that the former president stole in billions from the Ukrainian citizens.

  • moderatelymoderate

    Crimea almost became a separate country at the breakup of the USSR. Too bad that didn’t happen. There are about twice as many ethnic Russians a ethnic Ukrainians living there. Using Texas as a model, it could have become part of Russia at some point.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Crimea has a long and tumultuous history, stretching back to the Roman and Greek times. But let’s start in the 1700s. Russia annexed Crimea in 1783; Russia then lost the Crimean War but retained the peninsula; it was briefly a sovereign state in 1917 but then became part of the Soviet Union in 1921; and then the Nazis occupied it and destroyed most of Sevastopol. When the Red Army pushed the Nazis out, Stalin forcibly expelled the Tatar population to Central Asia. About half died on the way. Tatars were only allowed to come back after the Soviet Union collapsed. And then in 1954, Krushchev gifted Crimea to Ukraine.

      So the Russians invaded a part of a sovereign state that has changed hands and seen its share of bloodshed since time immemorial. At the end of the day, however, the invasion violated international law. Not that Putin cares, obviously, and not that there is anything Europe will do about it, especially given that Germany and Russia in particular are joined at the hip economically.

      My guess is that Crimea will now become some sort of pseudostate controlled by Russia. But we’ll see.

  • Timur Akhmetov

    Hello there! Do you know that more than 50% of the Crimea’s population are ethnic Russians? Do you know that the law recognizing Russian language as a regional language was annulled few days after the Ukrainian government was overthrown (i.e. anti-constitutionally and not as a result of free elections)? Hey, do you know that Ukranians constitute the largest group of foreign workers in Russia? Well, now you know that 😀

    • Tom Yulsman

      Timur, thanks for commenting here. The answer to your questions is that I knew some of what you said. In fact, I wrote about it in my previous post about the strategic importance of the Crimean Peninsula.

    • blumkin from palin

      Do you know that the region is home if the tartars. Many of who were killed by nasty drunk rusdians

    • Sergy Orloff

      Do you know that this law was not working? Do you know that instead of this law started working old Soviet law, which is very generous to the Russian language? Do you know that this law actually wasn’t annulled?

      Do you know that Rada is the same and the government is temporary, working till the spring, when there will be election?

      Do you understand that even if Crimea is 100% ethnically Russian, it is still not a reason for military intervention? Do you know that there was zero hostility to Russian speaking people of Crimea? Do you know that there were Russian flags on Maidan?

      I am sure that you knew this before I told you. You just do not care.

      • TheLulzWarrior

        Oh yes, we know bullshit propaganda when we see it.

        Ewige Verdammnis auf die maidan abschaum.

        • Sergy Orloff

          You are the masters of the bullshit propaganda. Indeed you know it when you see it. My comment wasn’t propaganda, and you see it very well too.

          And what you wrote in German… the same to you.

          • TheLulzWarrior

            No you are, you Soros-apid maidanist dirtbag, propaganda is all you post.

            If I decided instead of the current guy in Russland, you BSing maidanist scumbags would have suffered the same fate as those Turks and criminals in the hands of Vlad III.

            While Justice may not happen to you or to the tartar in the Kremlin, you maidanist dirtbags are still doomed for other reasons.

          • Sergy Orloff

            I don’t care. Maidan was fighting against corruption among politicians, against corruption that were destroying our society, against Janukovich – thug who was killing and destroying everything that was good in my country. Nobody wanted Maidan, we started it because we didn’t have other choice.

            Turks are different people. Criminals are scumbags and Vlad III was scumbag too.

            I pray for Justice. But if Justice will come you will be very, very surprised. Maybe we, “maidanist”, are doomed, but it only means that humanity is doomed.

  • Uncle Al

    I fail to see Obamunism as a viable US domestic policy or foreign policy. Putin has done quite well by unleashling Russian oligarchs despite historic and political Russan anti-Semitism. Not bankers – producers.

    Nobody votes for an empty belly. Putin’s stability and economic reliability trump the White House farting rainbows about citizens paying now for a hamburger promised delivered next Tuesday. Global Warming treats Europe with devastating winters. Europe will vote against economic upheaval.

  • Dale Clark

    What I don’t understand is why it’s ok for the US to invade sovereign nations all day long but as soon as one of the other kids on the playground do it it’s world war 3..

    • Bink

      Because there can only be one… But in all seriousness, our level of regional superiority is unmatched. Russia has problems with ex-soviet countries, china has it’s share of border issues, and the EU, meh, the eu.

      • melitagnm105

        My Uncle Jacob got a year 2013 Audi TT RS Coupe by working
        part time online. imp source J­u­m­p­9­9­9­.­ℂ­o­m

  • Ramsur

    Frankly, no one trusts Putin, as they say he speaks with a forked tongue. I would be surprised if China accepts this move without reluctance. Consider the Syrian experience. Putin promises all at the start, to save lives, to bring Assad to negotiate, to stop the fighting, not to take any more life. Yet, from the start,Syrians died, and each turn of events bring more dead Syrians, especially women and children. Up to to-day Syrians are still dying in droves, consequent on Putin’s action or inaction. That modern day Lucifer, has no consideration for human life. Now in the Ukraine he wants the territory, he wants the market; he is prepared to invade to get it. He has already seized Crimea, part of Ukraine against much outcry, and no one can do anything, except perhaps the Almighty God who may drop another meteor in his back yard. Since no one can do anything warlike, or even socially because of his influence, let it be. He will take what he wants, but no more lives should be thrown to his malevolent appetite. Let us wait until he achieves his goal, murder his own people, for then he will get what he deserves.

  • William Masters

    I don’t get it. It is okay for Nepal’s, soverignty to be taken by China; It is okay for Ireland’s soveringty to be taken by Britian; It is okay for Palistine’s soverignty to be taken by Jews, but for some reason it is a big no no for Ukranes to have their soverignty taken by Russia! Why? Is it becaus they are not Catholic, nor colored?



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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