Friday, August 29, 2014

Is It About Titanium?

I had an interesting conversation with a Russian emigre the other day.  He was a military engineer in the Soviet Union, before he defected--now he drives a taxicab.  He told me that, apart from the posturing and national prestige stuff going on with Putin and "New Russia", there is an important military-economic rationale for the aggression in Ukraine.

The world's largest supplier of titanium--which is an essential mineral in the bodies of military (and commercial) aircraft, as well as submarines--is a company called VSMPO, which is controlled by Rostec, the Russian-government owned technology company.  All the titanium VSMPO uses comes from the Ukraine. These are all facts.

Now, here's where the defector's speculation comes in, and some of this is less easily verified.  He alleged that there is a major titanium ore mine (producing rare "blue titanium", he said) in the Donetsk region.  He told me the name of the place--three times--but I could not find it.  The metallurgical plant in Ukraine which processes the ore is in an area called Irshansk, which is far from the Russian border, but I imagine the plant is secondary, while access to the ore could be the primary objective.  The smelting, he says, is in Crimea (which Russia annexed a few months ago).  In the Soviet days, he told me, these areas could transport materials easily and produce without border restrictions; today, if Ukraine blocked titanium shipments (the critical material is apparently called "ilmenite"), it could disrupt production of Russian military planes and submarines, as well as critical arms trade it conducts with a number of other countries.

Here are a couple more facts:  the sanctions have not yet targeted the flow of titanium--this is certainly no accident. Rostec (and the plane manufacturer Sukhoi) are both blocked from trading with the US government because of sanctions (relating, apparently, to previous trade with Iran), but Rostec has a major joint venture to supply titanium to--Boeing. According to the Wall Street Journal (an article about three weeks ago), Boeing has been stockpiling titanium to insure against adverse consequences if the Russia-Ukraine crisis continues or intensifies (which it seems to have done, just in the last couple of days, as Russia invaded a new front in Ukraine, closer to Crimea).  Boeing claims to have about eight months' supply.

Just when Ukraine seemed to have a handle on the insurgents in the Donetsk area, Russia has chosen to provoke new disruption.  I am waiting to see if this hidden story comes more to the forefront, but titanium is such an important strategic resource that it is not hard to believe that concerns about the metal may lie behind some of the outrageous acts of the past few weeks.

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