Playing Politics With Pipelines

Most Russians celebrate the new year with a few firecrackers, a glass of sweet champagne, perhaps vodka and pickled herring to keep the party going. This year the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, celebrated by switching off the flow of natural gas to Ukraine. As the inhabitants of Moscow and Kiev were waking up Sunday morning, nursing their hangovers, Russian state television was broadcasting live from a compressor station near Kursk. The pipeline branch boss was shown barking into a telephone: “Yes. Yes. And through the big pipes — nothing. Fine. That’s clear. Let the operators work on it.” As the cameras rolled, workers turned the big metal wheels, scrutinized computer terminals and watched the gauges drop.

By the end of the day, the Ukrainian government had called the shut-off “unacceptable.” The Russian government had denounced the Ukrainians for turning down a “super-beneficial” new gas contract, one that would quadruple the price Ukraine now pays for natural gas. The U.S. government had issued a statement expressing “regret.” The European Union had announced it would hold a meeting. And thus began 2006, the year in which Russia will assume the presidency of the Group of Eight for the first time, the year in which the Russians want “energy security” to be the G-8’s major theme.

In a way, it made sense. By no ordinary measure does Russia deserve to belong to the G-8, a group meant to include only the leaders of the world’s richest democracies. In sheer size, Russia’s economy lags behind those of Holland, Mexico and Brazil, among others. In per capita income, Russians lag behind Malta, Brunei, Chile and Uruguay. Even in conventional military power, Russia, with its army still stuck deep in the Chechen mud, is hardly the behemoth it used to be.

But in its ability to manipulate European supplies of natural gas, Russia is once again emerging as a superpower. There are still limitations: It is true that Ukraine was paying less than the world price for its gas, and also true that Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs were both profiting from that post-Soviet arrangement (which helps explain why it existed so long). It is furthermore true that Ukraine, through which Russian gas also flows to Western Europe, is not without leverage. Indeed, on Monday, as gas flows into Austria, Italy, France, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia dropped sharply, too, loud protests forced the Russians to switch the gas back on.

Nevertheless, the theatricality of the shut-off — those television pictures of big men turning big wheels — suggests that this was a political decision. The facts suggest that, too. After all, the object of the blackmail was Ukraine, a country that is striving to achieve political independence from Russia — not neighboring Belarus, a country that remains subservient to Russia. It was also President Putin, not Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, who publicly announced the decisions this week.

More to the point, the decision fits neatly into a pattern. Last month, when Gerhard Schroeder, the former German chancellor, accepted a seat on the board of a consortium led by Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly — a consortium that will build a Russian-German pipeline that Schroeder approved during his final days in office — we learned that Russian gas money has already been used to garner political influence. This week’s events are further proof that the Russian government is willing to use its gas pipelines for political purposes as well. Today, Ukraine — next year, why not Germany?

Europe can still avert future blackmail. European governments could invest in alternative infrastructure, such as marine terminals for receiving and storing liquefied natural gas — more of which would make gas easier to trade internationally — or a pipeline from the Caspian Sea, under the Black Sea and through Ukraine. Theoretically, the Europeans could also fight back diplomatically, in concert with the United States. Take that presidency of the G-8, for example: Is everybody still absolutely sure that Russia should remain a G-8 member? Is everybody absolutely positive that they want Putin to act as the G-8 president?

But before Western leaders can even contemplate asking such impolitic questions, they’ll have to recognize Putin’s new year’s celebration as the warning signal it was. Manipulation of television stations, harassment of human rights activists, imprisonment of the president’s political rivals — none of that has so far excluded Russia from the club of civilized nations. Like the war in Chechnya, Russia’s bitter dispute with Ukraine over gas prices was, until now, largely dismissed as a regional spat. That has to change. Perhaps if the Russians want to talk about “energy security” in 2006, we should take them up on it.

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