Monday, February 11, 2008

"Independent" on Ukraine/Russia gas crisis

British "Independent" Leading article:

The stench of blackmail

Again, we see the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, insisting politics plays no part in this row and maintaining if Ukraine paid its bills, Russia would not be threatening dire measures.

Perhaps. Of course there is a financial aspect to the Ukrainian struggle with Gazprom, and it's hardly surprising Moscow should seek to maximise its income from its abundant energy resources.

But Russia has only itself to blame if the world looks at Mr Putin's explanations with scepticism. It was clear the last time Gazprom threatened to make Ukraine freeze in January 2006 that the Kremlin was determined to punish the electors of a former Soviet republic over which Russia still claims an imperial influence. Their misdemeanour lay in having had the temerity to elect a pro-western Orange government in direct contravention to Mr Putin's advice.

It is no surprise that Europeans and Ukrainians wonder whether, if the gas goes off once more this week in Kiev, it will be at least in part because Ukraine is pressing ahead with plans to join Nato, defying Moscow's views.

It would be a fine example of the Kremlin's black humour if the flames of Ukrainian cookers flickered and died just as their President, Victor Yushchenko, touched down in Moscow for what everyone predicts will be a difficult visit.

We can only look on and hope for the best, trusting in Kremlin assurances that Western European customers will not suffer for Ukraine's behaviour. The sad fact is that Europe has allowed itself to sleepwalk into an ever-growing dependence on Russia for its energy and that this relationship now circumscribes our ability to influence, let alone criticise, the Kremlin.

Earlier plans in the 1990s to diversify European oil and gas supplies from Azerbaijan were foolishly laid aside while Russia busily strained very muscle to increase its monopolistic position. Divide and rule have been Russia's watchwords, which is one reason why the Nord Stream gas pipeline is being built to Germany, bypassing a protesting Poland. The Kremlin has done well in striking new energy deals in the Balkans this year, too, undercutting any wider EU strategy. Only last month, it bought up the whole of Serbia's state petrol industry, NIS.

The political ramifications of Europe's economic dependence on Russian oil and gas are obvious: timidity in the face of Russian blackmail over Kosovo, passivity in the face of its often outrageous threats towards the Baltic states. When it comes to Ukraine, we can probably assume the two sides will somehow sort it out. But there is little we can do about it.

If you have a spare half hour, listen to part one of BBC Radio 4's "Dancing with the Russian Bear" here. [It kicks in after about one minute]


Anonymous said...

In this specific case it does appear that the Ukrainian gov. would have raised anyone's hackles on commercial grounds. First they denied there was a debt since the gas hadn't been supplied. Then they said the middleman had stolen the money. Then when the cut off threat loomed nearer they agreed there was a debt but they'd only pay it if the middleman was elimanted. Russia, like anyone else would do said first pay the debt and then we'll negotiate.

LEvko said...

The new Tymoshenko administration, which came to power on the 18th of December last year, may well have refused to pay the gas bills for the last few months of last year in order to precipitate a crisis with the aim of eliminating the current intermediaries.

She, not altogether unsurprisingly, says that money had been collected from consumers, but that it was the previous government's fault that these billed were not paid. she says it was the previous administration who 'trousered' the money, as they say where I live.

No doubt more details of what was agreed today will trickle out soon.

Anonymous said...

well you might be right she seems to have got what she wanted but she is the Prime Minister of a European country and not a gas trader anymore - it's obviously sometimes necessary to lie but not from the high board - she has to maintain some sort of limit to the disbelief in her speech/word