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Vladimir Putin showing he may have more power over oil prices than all of OPEC

  • "Putin is keenly aware that he can't cut funds to social programs. He has elections coming up in March and the last thing he needs is a plummeting price for crude into these elections," RBC Capital Markets' Helima Croft says.
Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, speaks during the 23rd World Energy Congress in Istanbul, Turkey, on Monday, Oct. 10, 2016.
Kerem Uzel | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, speaks during the 23rd World Energy Congress in Istanbul, Turkey, on Monday, Oct. 10, 2016.

Normally ahead of the OPEC meetings in Vienna, commodity markets would be buzzing about what one of its oil ministers might say.

And while both still matter, it's the power struggle in Saudi Arabia and the omnipresence of Russian President Vladimir Putin that have oil markets on edge.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, also known as MBS, is wielding power in an attempt to hold his position and that is impacting oil prices. It doesn't hurt that his crackdown came ahead of Thursday's OPEC meeting in Vienna. It is clear that MBS needed to demonstrate that anyone who moves against him will be imprisoned or worse. A prime example is the imprisonment of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal at the Ritz in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Prince Alwalweed's Kingdom Holdings has lost 27 percent of its value (about $11 billion) since its Sept. 13 high.

But neither the Saudi oil minister nor MBS are likely to have a bigger impact in Vienna than Putin, according to my friend Helima Croft, managing director at RBC Capital Markets and frequent contributor to CNBC.

"Putin is keenly aware that he can't cut funds to social programs. He has elections coming up in March and the last thing he needs is a plummeting price for crude into these elections," she said.

Croft has held positions on the Council on Foreign Relations as well at the CIA, where she concentrated on geopolitics and commodities.

Our discussions over breakfast between her hits on CNBC European "Squawk Box" and her talk at the Economist's Energy Summit 2017 in London were wide-ranging. I intended to extend these conversations about cryptocurrencies and ICOs, but Croft's focus on the upcoming OPEC summit was unbreakable.

The recent peak for WTI was $59 per barrel and since has slipped to $57.50. Before Putin's cobbling together of his country's output with that of two former Soviet republics, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, OPEC's influence had faded to just 35 percent of the global market. But since then, with Putin's considerable help, OPEC is back to collectively pumping 60 percent of the world's oil.

As Croft has said, "Putin is now the world's energy czar." So the question for Vienna isn't what will MBS or Saudi Oil Minister Khalid Al-Falih say, but rather what the superpower that isn't an OPEC member will say.