Putin's air strikes in Syria stir up oil prices

Boone Pickens: Goldman way off on $20 oil
Boone Pickens: Goldman way off on $20 oil

Vladimir Putin's military campaign in Syria is stirring up trouble in the Middle East -- and jacking up oil prices in the process.

T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire oil man, believes that's exactly what Putin was hoping for.

"He wants a higher price for oil," Pickens told CNNMoney's Cristina Alesci. "A lack of leadership in the United States has allowed Putin to walk into the Middle East and be right there."

Energy-reliant Russia has been slammed by the crash in world oil prices. The Russian economy is in recession and the ruble has collapsed against the dollar.

But last week oil climbed back above $50 a barrel for the first time since July -- in part due to unease created Moscow's first military campaign in the Middle East in decades.

"This escalation certainly increases uncertainty in the oil-rich Middle East, thus boosting oil prices. If they start falling again, Putin is perfectly positioned to stir things up in the region," Ed Yardeni, president of investment advisory Yardeni Research, wrote in a note to clients.

That's not good news for American drivers. The average gallon of gasoline is selling for $2.314 on Monday, up from $2.29 a week ago, according to AAA.

Related: Saudi Arabia's oil policy 'does not help anyone'

Pickens: Strait of Hormuz 'in play' for Putin

Russia accelerated its bombing campaign in Syria over the weekend, conducting dozens of airstrikes against what Russia called ISIS targets. Military analysts believe Putin's real targets are actually Western-backed rebels threatening the regime of Russian ally and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

While Syria is not a major oil producer, Pickens points out that the country is uncomfortably close to the Strait of Hormuz -- a critical chokepoint for 17 million barrels of oil each day.

Pickens said the Strait of Hormuz is "now in play" because Syria is "right there." The oil tycoon said he's not suggesting Putin will actually take over the key channel. "Putin is where he has options," Pickens said.

Over the weekend President Obama pushed back against the idea that Putin is challenging American power in the Middle East.

"If you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send ground troops in, in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we've got a different definition of leadership," Obama told CBS's 60 Minutes.

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Billionaire oil man T. Boone Pickens (left) believes uncertainty over Russian President Vladimir Putin's (right) military campaign in Syria is helping drive up oil prices.

Related: 5 things to know about Russia's failing economy

Oil stocks race higher

The geopolitical jitters have lifted energy stocks as well as oil prices. The S&P energy sector has spiked 10% since September 29, the day before Russia began airstrikes in Syria. Shares of oil driller Transocean (RIG) have skyrocketed even further, rallying 26% over that span.

"Thanks to Putin's excellent adventure in the Middle East, oil company stock prices have started to outperform in recent days, and may continue to do so," Yardeni wrote.

Some oil analysts believe Russia's military campaign in Syria won't be enough to overshadow the supply glut that caused prices to crash in the first place.

"I don't see a spike in prices beyond a short-term phenomenon. There isn't going to be a lasting increase," said Andrew Neff, an analyst at IHS Energy.

oil prices Putin Syria

Related: U.S. oil output tumbles to 1-year low

Pickens: Oil back to $70 by Memorial Day

Of course, Russia's military campaign isn't the only factor driving up oil prices. Importantly, cracks have begun to emerge in the American energy boom. Government stats released last week showed U.S. oil production fell in September to the lowest level in a year.

Pickens, a reliable oil bull, believes oil prices will hit $70 a barrel by the middle of 2016 due to declining U.S. output.

Pickens said the prediction from Goldman Sachs and others that oil could tumble to $20 will ultimately be proven wrong.

"Goldman's way off. I know more about it than Goldman knows," Pickens said.

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