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Where Technology and Politics Collide in Europe  


Dr. Margarita Balmaceda

International relations is a multidisciplinary field that spans broad themes ranging from conflict and war to more specific aspects like social networks between individuals. Professor Margarita Balmaceda has spent over 20 years examining energy politics, a feature of international relations that started out as a niche branch of study but has more recently demanded attention on the global stage.

In her forthcoming book, Russian Energy, Value Chains, and the Remaking of Politics from Siberia to the European Union: Chains of Value and Power in Natural Gas, Oil, and Coal, she explores not only the production, transportation, and consumption processes of energy sources, but also how the constraints created by the technological requirements of energy production affect what politicians may or may not be able to do with energy. The book will be published next summer by Columbia University Press.

This book takes a new approach after Balmaceda's own critical assessment of her previous texts, including: Living the High Life in Minsk: Russian Energy Rents, Domestic Populism and Belarus' Impending Crisis (2014) and The Politics of Energy Dependency: Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania Between Domestic Oligarchs and Russian Pressure (2015). While these books were very well received – Living the High Life in Minsk received the prize of Best Foreign Book on Belarus (2015) and The Politics of Energy Dependency was awarded as "Outstanding Academic Title" by the journal Choice in 2014 – Balmaceda felt something was missing.

In these earlier publications, Balmaceda looked at domestic politics of these countries to address how they dealt with the threat of Russia's use of its energy power against them. The more she looked at this question, the more she understood that that the threat Russian energy represented for these states could not be understood without also understanding the opportunity, even the temptation represented by Russian energy. She notes that, 

There is both a temptation and a threat for states when relying on Russia for their energy consumption. While there is profit in the interaction, there is also the danger that Russia may use their natural resources as political weapons against consumers.

Balmaceda came to realize that threat and temptation were two faces of the same phenomena – participation in the value and supply chains (i.e., the entire process from discovery to delivery to final consumers) associated with the export of Russia's energy riches. So, she decided to devote her next book to this issue, looking in detail at the technical details of these value chains.

To do so, she follows the three key energy value chains starting in Russia: those for oil, natural gas, and coal. As Balmaceda describes it, "The book is essentially the travelogue of three energy molecules going from Siberia to western Europe." While following this 4,000 mile journey, she analyzes the material characteristics of each of type of energy to not only determine which technological processes and transportation means will be used, but also the manner in which political leaders can or cannot use them. She explains in one example that natural gas is best transported through pipelines, and to do that, these pipelines need to be under pressure, which in turn constraints how it can or cannot be used as a political weapon.

While energy has long been Balmaceda's research focus, diving into the technical side of this field required new training. She spent a year learning about energy technology to complement her knowledge of energy politics, allowing her to merge the two in her new book. She also took courses on coal and energy production in Ukrainian to expand her scope of research beyond sources in English, Russian and German, languages she uses daily in her research and engagement as a public intellectual.

Professor Balmaceda credits the School of Diplomacy for supporting her throughout this endeavor:

I had the freedom to tackle these issues in a counter-intuitive fashion, and the support of the School to organize research trips to places like Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, as well as collaborate with scholars in Germany, Finland, and Norway. Within the classroom, I was able to test out my ideas with my students and get their feedback.

Her new work will offer critical insight for professionals in political science and international relations related fields. As Balmaceda describes, "Without understanding the details of energy technology, it is impossible to understand how energy may be used politically." To facilitate this learning for all readers, the book includes special features such as a guide to key energy technology concepts, concepts which she explains in an easy-to-follow manner.

While this will be her third book publication in five years, Balmaceda shares that the next generation inspires her to keep up the pace, and she has no intention of slowing down. "Young people are full of energy, so you need to work really hard, otherwise they will catch up with you!"

If you are eager to read more from Professor Balmaceda, you will find a list of her work on her faculty profile here. For our extensive list of faculty publications, check out faculty scholarship page or take a look at our full menu of Diplomacy faculty profiles.

Categories: Nation and World , Science and Technology

For more information, please contact:

  • Gwen DeBenedetto
  • (973) 275-2562