Russian oil production has returned to levels not seen for a decade and crude exports last year beat all records, but Moscow's ability to contribute to a lowering of world prices remains limited, experts said ahead of a key OPEC meeting.
Some OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) members, including the world's biggest exporter Saudi Arabia, are willing to boost production in order to stabilize oil prices that have remained above the $28 per barrel level for several weeks as a result of uncertainty over Iraq and Venezuela.
The oil cartel agreed Jan. 12 in Vienna to increase output by 1.5 million barrels per day - approximately how much Venezuelan production has dropped - to 24.5 million barrels.
"We are prepared to cooperate in any way possible," Energy Minister Igor Yusufov said during a visit to the Gulf where he held talks with Saudi, Kuwaiti and Iranian officials.
Following a rise in production for the fourth successive year, Russian crude output hit 379.6 million tons (7.59 million barrels per day) in 2002, confirming the country's standing as the world's second-ranked producer after Saudi Arabia.
Exports from Russia totaled 156.6 million tons (3.13 million barrels per day), the highest level since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, according to provisional figures from the Energy Ministry, compared with 3 million barrels per day in 2001.
However, "Russia's potential to step in and supply more oil is limited," Stephen O'Sullivan, an analyst with the UFG investment group said.
"Russia has no spare production capacity and typically uses almost all its export capacity," he noted.
Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko announced recently that Russia planned to produce more than 415 million tons of oil in 2003.
This target could however be hampered by "the inadequacy of the country's oil export infrastructure," Kakha Kiknavelidze of the Troika Dialog bank said.
"There will be no improvement until 2004 with the launch of the second stage of the Baltic Pipeline System and the start of shipments through the Adriatic pipeline" to the Croatian port of Omisalj, he said.
Russia has pondered numerous plans to increase export sales in recent years, but these require time to be put into effect and Russia, unlike Saudi Arabia, has no means of reacting rapidly to curb a rise in world oil prices.
Some Russian experts believe that analysts have underestimated the country's margin for maneuver.
They note that Russia's oil barons have been following the situation closely and have almost all envisaged substantial increases in their production in 2003 with the clear objective of selling on world markets.
Russia's major oil companies also have their sights on the United States, known to be seeking to diversify its suppliers.
Last summer the first successful direct deliveries of oil to the United States were made by sea.
The deficiencies of Russia's port-terminal infrastructures mean that the U.S. market is currently insignificant, but it is likely to gain rapidly in importance, Russian industry insiders believe.
Russian producers decided last November to combine efforts to open up a new route for exports to the United States via a deep-water terminal near the northern port of Murmansk, on the Barents Sea, which they hope will become operational within five years.
However, the government, which wants to control oil deliveries throughout the country, has expressed misgivings about the project.