MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled the final extension of a new $25bn oil pipeline to the Pacific that underscores the country’s gradual shift away from stagnant European markets.
The East Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) link is also expected to expand sales to the US and fulfil Mr Putin’s dream of cementing Russia’s place as a dominant force on international crude markets.
Moscow hopes to make ESPO into a benchmark in the Asia Pacific region that competes with West Texas Intermediate (WTI) — the US oil standard whose price some traders believe is too heavily based on domestic political factors.
But analysts worry that Russia may currently lack enough accessible oil in its underdeveloped East Siberia fields to keep the line fully flowing despite strong demand in China and Japan.
Mr Putin brushed those concerns aside as he joined in the ribbon-cutting ceremony by video link from the Far East city of Khabarovsk.
"By completing the second leg, our potential is expanding," Mr Putin said in televised remarks.
"This is a serious event." The second leg of the 4,200km pipeline runs from fields west of Lake Baikal to the Pacific port of Kozmino near the northeastern edge of China.
The port — previously connected to East Siberian crude by rail — also provides Russia with quick access to Japan and South Korea.
But the head of the Transneft state oil pipeline operator said most of the crude from the final leg would in fact be destined for the US.
"The American market will receive 35% of Kozmino oil," Nikolai Tokarev said at the opening ceremony in comments reported by the company’s website.
"Around 30% will go to Japan and 28% to China. The rest will go to Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea." Russia has repeatedly tried and failed to make meaningful inroads on the US crude and natural gas markets.
Its gas sales never materialised after the North American shale revolution made both Canada and the United States effectively self-sufficient.
Analysts also point out that US oil production is expanding at rates that should soon see the country outpace Russia and Saudi Arabia in the next few years.
But Mr Tokarev appeared to be placing his bets on this region as he laid to waste the idea of offering Europe any assurances that the continent could continue to rely on Russian oil.
"We do not owe a single European Union (EU) country a thing, and we certainly not obligated to account for ourselves," RIA Novosti quoted Mr Tokarev as saying.
"If they (EU nations) want to hold a normal, proper conversation, they should change their approach to such a dialogue."