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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

20 January 2006

Russia and Ukraine

A New York Times editorial on Ukraine writes, “By punishing Mr. Yushchenko for trying to pull Ukraine away from Russia, Mr. Putin is pushing Ukraine away from Russia” (1). The largely confrontational tone that Russia adopted in trying to renegotiate the terms of its agreement with Ukraine over gas may, at first glance, confirm the line of thinking that the Times article puts forward: it is impossible for any observer who was casually following the events in the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute not to think that this raw and graceless display of Russian power would backfire and produce the opposite results from those that the Kremlin might have wished for.

But it is always worth giving our opponents (if this is the way to label Russia) the benefit of the doubt and refuse to assume that they are merely incompetent tacticians and strategists. Strategic Forecasting Inc. (STRATFOR) offers the following interpretation: “The terms of the new agreement mean that Europe's natural gas supplies now will depend not only on the tenor of Russian- European and Russian-Ukrainian relations, but also on Russian-Kazakh, -Uzbek, and -Turkmen relations. Suddenly Europe has a vested, if reluctant, interest in ensuring that Moscow is satisfied with its level of influence in the bulk of the largest former Soviet territories” (2).

In other words, the move was not so much to target Ukraine directly but rather to reduce that geopolitical breathing space and support which made Ukraine’s realignment possible. Although Russia has used its energy weapon before on its closest neighbors, this is the first time to really put Europe in such a precarious position (3). It is possible to argue that Europe’s precariousness emerges from geography as much as anything else and that hence Europe was targeted only due to geography and not politics; but geography in itself would have offered any country pause before using such a heavy handed political tool as cutting off supplies; it hardly possible to assume that “scaring” Europe was not a logical and foreseeable consequence of Russia’s policy. It is still possible that this may backfire and force Ukraine closer into the West’s hands—Putin’s bet is that Europe will think twice before welcoming Kiev with open arms. And it is not an unreasonable bet.

(1) “Looking at Ukraine more closely,” New York Times, 20 Jan 06
(2) Peter Zeihan, “Russia’s Gas Strategy: Turning up the heat on Ukraine,” Stratfor Geopolitical Intelligence Report, 4 Jan 06
(3) Keith Smith, “Current implications of Russian Energy Policies,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, Europe program: Issue brief, 12 Jan 06 (link); also reference 2

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