Gas Dispute Prompts Questions About Russia

By Angela Charlton

The Associated Press
January 2, 2006PARIS (AP) – What kind of neighbor cuts off gas supplies in winter? That question is being asked of Russia after it closed natural gas taps feeding Ukraine, a decision with implications for the rest of Europe.

In language reminiscent of the Cold War, many Europeans castigated Russia on Monday for shutting gas supplies to Ukraine over a price dispute. Russia’s critics say the cutoff was Ukraine’s punishment for reaching out to the West.

Beneath the criticism lay deeper questions about Russia’s role in today’s Europe. The shut-off came the same day Russia assumed the leadership of the G-8, after years of seeking a full-fledged place in the elite group of rich nations.
“The novelty of 2006 is Russia’s reappearance on the map of world threats,” said Italian daily La Stampa. “Only its tool has changed: Instead of nuclear warheads and the international communist movement, today there is the gas tap.”

“In the year of the Russian G-8, the West must decide, for the umpteenth time, how to act toward a Russian czar with a claim not anymore on their lives, but on their stoves.”

The cutoff threatens shipments throughout Europe because Ukraine acts as a transit country for most of Russia’s gas consignment to the continent.

In the wake of the European criticism, Russian officials said late Monday they would resume some gas supplies intended for Europe. And most analysts expect Russia and Ukraine to reach agreement soon.

Still, the crisis is the latest sign that Russia has its own idea of where it fits in the global marketplace and political arena. And that idea doesn’t always match the dependable, predictable Russia that Europe dreams of.

“Russia is saying clearly to its partners that it is an energy superpower, saying ‘We are actors on the world stage. You should listen to us,”’ said Thomas Gomart, an expert at the French Institute of International Relations, a Paris think-tank.

Beyond re-igniting European concerns about energy security, the crisis threatened to revive anti-Russian sentiment that last flared in Europe a year ago, during Ukraine’s democratic revolution. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been worrying Europe by clamping down on foreign non-governmental organizations and with his perceived backsliding on Russian democracy.

“Seeing Russia use this weapon is bound to have a political impact on the image of Russia as a well-behaved neighbor,” Philip Hanson, a Russia expert at Birmingham University in England, said of the gas shut-off.

The gas dispute has simmered since the early 1990s, prompting questions of why Russia chose to cut off supplies now – just months before parliamentary elections in Ukraine.

Moscow “is trying to satisfy its imperial ambitions, paying little attention to the fact that the way it has chosen undermines its reputation as a trade partner,” commentator Slawomir Popowski wrote in the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita.

In Poland, the crisis reinforced fears that Russia will play rough to maintain influence over its former satellites. Germany, which depends on Russia for 30 percent of its gas, is also nervous.

“Russia is using unrestrained monopoly power to discipline a politically insubordinate neighbor,” said Werner Hoyer, a senior lawmaker for Germany’s Free Democratic Party.

“Who can guarantee that Russia won’t one day use the gas tap as a way to exert pressure or impose discipline on other countries, such as Germany?”

Russia insists it is only enforcing its commercial rights, demanding that Ukraine pay market price for gas.

European government officials were cautious about casting blame and alienating Putin. But the cutoff has continentwide implications, and European Union energy ministers will meet Wednesday to discuss it.

Amid the criticism, Russia won a bit of indirect support from Pascal Lamy, director of the World Trade Organization: “Whatever the political or legal problems are, in the short term, these countries should pay for their energy at today’s energy prices to improve the efficiency of their economies.”

Associated Press reporters Alessandra Rizzo in Rome, Stephen Graham in Berlin, Beth Gardiner and Tariq Panja in London and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.