Feature

When natural gas becomes a weapon.

The week's news at a glance.

Ukraine and Russia

Russia is once again a threat to the world, said Enzo Bettiza in Turin, Italy’s La Stampa. “Only its weapon has changed. Instead of nuclear warheads and the international communist movement, today there is the gas tap.” Furious that its former province Ukraine has reoriented toward the West under Viktor Yushchenko, Russia this week took the drastic step of cutting off gas exports to Ukraine. Ostensibly, the move came because Ukraine, which has long received Russian gas at a massive 80 percent discount, refused to pay market price. But surely Russia could have waited a few months. To shut off energy supplies to a country in the middle of a cold winter—and just three months before a national election—was a transparent act of retribution. And the cutoff doesn’t affect just Ukraine. Gas shipments to other European countries travel through the same pipelines, so any decrease in the volume of gas could hit everyone. Fortunately, the international outcry forced Russia to turn the taps back on.

Even short-lived, the move was “practically an act of war,” said Endre Aczel in Budapest’s Nepszabadsag. Remember when Muammar al-Qaddafi threatened the U.S. with an oil embargo? The U.S. Air Force was “immediately over Libya, dropping bombs.” And Libya only accounted for 2 percent of U.S. oil supplies at the time. Russia, by contrast, supplies fully one-third of Europe’s natural gas. That translates to a lot of power over European economies. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has just demonstrated that he will use that power capriciously. “When he is in the stronger position, he will trample down his opponents without mercy.”

Must everyone demonize Russia? asked Mary Dejevsky in the London Independent. All the accounts of the pricing dispute portray “the snarling Russian bear” picking on “poor, freedom-loving little Ukraine.” The reality is more complicated. Russia is trying to join the World Trade Organization, and one of the conditions is that it stop subsidizing domestic energy consumers. Is Russia supposed to let its own people freeze but continue subsidizing Ukrainians? That would hardly be fair. Moreover, before the taps were cut, Russia offered Ukraine a three-month grace period and a loan to cover subsequent payments, and it turned down both proposals.

Fairness goes both ways, said Ingo Mannteufel in a commentary for Germany’s Deutsche Welle news service. Certainly Russia should be fairly paid for its gas. But the state monopoly Gazprom has already demonstrated “in its dealings with other former Soviet republics” that there’s a “great margin” around the price of gas. Georgia, Armenia, Lithuania, and especially Belarus all pay far lower prices than Ukraine is being asked to pay. In addition, Ukraine has a right to demand that it be paid more for allowing Russian pipelines to traverse its territory. “If purely commercial interests played a role in setting the price, a result acceptable for both sides would surely have been reached already.” That’s why we can be so certain that the Russian move is, at bottom, political.

Le Monde

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