How Russian oil can save Kenya


Fuel prices at a petrol station in Nyeri town on September 15, 2022 hours after Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority reviewed the rates. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NMG

One of the turning points of Europe’s religious wars was the Bohemian revolt in the 17th Century. Catholic Habsburg kings had governed the Kingdom of Bohemia (much of central Europe) since early 16th Century and were very tolerant of their largely Protestant subjects.

However, towards the end his reign, Emperor Matthias, realising he would die without an heir, sought to assure an orderly transition during his lifetime by having his dynastic heir (the fiercely Catholic Ferdinand II).

Protestants in Bohemia were wary of Ferdinand reversing the religious tolerance and freedom formerly established by the Peace of Augsburg. The dispute culminated after several wars in the final Battle of White Mountain, where Protestants suffered a decisive rout. But France’s posture in this revolt was classic.

In theory, the Emperor Matthias’ fellow Catholic sovereigns were obliged to unite in opposition to the revolt.

France chose not to, citing its own strategic interests. France’s then chief minister, Armand-Jean du Plessis, Cardinal de Richelieu was the first to articulate dominance of the pursuit of a nation’s strategic interests. He invented the idea that the State was abstract and permanent entity existing in its own right.

A State’s own requirements are not determined by the ruler’s personality, family interests, or the universal demands of religion, but rather national interests, in what later came to be known as raison d’etat.

As a Cardinal, he owed a duty to the Church, which implied aligning against the rebellious Protestant princes of Northern and Central Europe. In his defense, he cited his duty as a minister.

Instead, Cardinal de Richelieu saw the turmoil in Central Europe not as a call to arms to defend the church, but as a means to check Imperial Habsburg preeminence. France then went on to support the Protestant coalition on the basis of cold national interest calculation.

Indeed, the aim of keeping Central Europe (more or less the territory of contemporary Germany, Austria and northern Italy) divided remained the guiding principle of French foreign policy for over two centuries. As global energy prices remain sky high, developing economies are walking a thin rope.

The raging Ukraine-Russian war has created perceived two axis of geopolitical alliances. You have the West keen to starve Russia of energy finances by cutting their purchases (of Russian oil). The ultimate goal is to squeeze Russia’s ability to continue financing the war.

On the other hand, you also have china, India and other smaller non-allied developing economies keen to take advantage by buying Russian at discounted prices.

Because Russia has had fewer buyers for its crude, with most West-allied governments and companies opting to shun Russian oil, the prices of Russian crude started to fall. At one point, Russian crude was priced at $30 cheaper than Brent crude (the global pricing benchmark).

It is now estimated to be about $20 cheaper. Kenya, which continues to bear the brunt of high energy prices, is at cross-roads. It can no longer afford to subsidise pump prices. While Kenya has had strong bilateral relationships with the Western order, specifically the US and UK, it is widely argued that buying Russian oil would draw Western ire.

The truth is Kenya needs the discounted oil. President William Ruto, while speaking to global media on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, did not appear to rule out going for Russian oil.

Going by Cardinal de Richelieu’s raison d’etat, the pursuit of a nation’s strategic interests should supersede any other interests. Energy is the lifeblood of Kenya’s economy as it is used to power every aspect. The government has already spent a considerable amount of money to subsidise pump prices since 2021.

And while the move was strategically expedient, given that kerosene and diesel are the energy sources relied on by the majority of Kenyans, it can no longer afford to do so (and has started a phased withdrawal of the subsidies).

In the current circumstances, there is nothing more strategic to Kenya than bilateral purchases of Russian oil at discounted price(s). While Kenya owes a duty to the West in terms of geopolitical alignments there has to be reasoned necessity when it comes to strategic energy interests.