When Rosneft formally completes its acquisition of TNK-BP to become the world's biggest listed crude producer next year, it will cement a major shift in Russian energy realpolitik. For decades, Gazprom, the gas producer and export monopoly, was a key lever of post-Soviet Kremlin power. But years of mismanagement have taken their toll. And gas isn't what it used to be. Rosneft is emerging as the new official energy torch bearer. But Russia remains at the core a badly-managed resource economy.
Rosneft is in the ascendant. Backtracking on his government's promise to privatise the Russian oil sector, President Vladimir Putin has instead set the state-owned group up as the gatekeeper of his country's energy might – a privileged position in a country where oil and gas account for about a fifth of GDP. The company will account for close to half of Russian oil production after it swallows TNK-BP. Its boss, Igor Sechin, is a Putin ally and old colleague from their KGB days.
Global oil majors have lined up to partner with the state behemoth on projects in the offshore Arctic and other places where Russia needs foreign expertise to get at new finds. Those projects, rather than Russia's declining Soviet-era oil and gas fields, are where the future lies.
If Rosneft's story has been one of steadily creeping control, Gazprom's recent experience has been the opposite. The Kremlin has expressed frustration at Gazprom's slow reaction to the U.S. shale boom and the globalisation of the natural gas market. The vice-like grip that Gazprom's piped gas once held on European supply is now looser. Belated efforts to strike pipeline deals with China and invest in liquefied natural gas have yet to pick up the slack. Gazprom has struggled to deliver big projects, such as the recently deferred Shtokman offshore field. Granting price concessions to several big European customers in 2012 was a definite sign of a hegemon in retreat.
Rosneft may not be subject to the same disruptive forces as Gazprom; U.S. shale hasn't had as big an effect on oil, and Rosneft never had a monopoly to lose. But in the end, it will just be another petroleum producer selling into global markets. After years of mismanagement, marked by cronyism and the wholesale looting of its natural resources, Russia's days of projecting energy power are in their twilight.