Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Russian-Ukrainian Gas Dispute Again

I had not initially thought I would make a post about the gas dispute.  It has become a predictable event and the outcome that a deal will be reached probably sooner than the apparent intransigence of both parties suggests.  Moreover, it has become something of a truism that this dispute is an effort by Russia and Putin to use gas as a weapon to keep Ukraine as much a part of the "near abroad" as possible.  It is heartening therefore to see an op-ed article by Jerome Guillet and John Evans published in today's Financial Times.  Guillet, who on the internet goes by the name Jerome a Paris, is probably the most knowledgeable expert on Gasprom -- his comments posted at Daily Kos during the 2005 crisis were eyeopening -- and his point in that piece is that the real issue is not so Russian and Ukrainian relations as it is the continued influence of oligarchs in Russia and Ukraine.  That point gets to the ugly truth about post-Soviet states that is so easily obscured when we people try to dig up old geopolitical models some dating back to the nineteenth century and the "Great Game."  Indeed every time people write about Putin creating a new energy based superpower that will allow the Kremlin to wield incredible power over its neighbors, they are helping Putin retain his popularity.  A more democratic Russia depends on Russians understanding that the ability to be a player and stability are not one and the same thing.  Indeed, the current economic crisis is closer to revealing the extent that Putin's Russia is close to being a giant Potemkin village. 

By the same token, treating Ukraine as a fragile state that will soon be brought to its knees by Putin's maneuvering  distracts from the truth that however lacking it may be compared to its western neighbors, let alone western democracies, Ukraine continues to be better positioned to become more democratic and more stable than Russia in the mid-term.  But it can only do that if the Ukrainian state's ability to enforce and insist on the rule of law in the economic sphere increases.  In this light, the great question is what happens to RosUkrEnergo.  If as Tymoshenko has called for RosUkrEnergo's role as transfer agent is curbed and the gas transfer becomes more transparent.  If it continues to become the conduit then Ukraine will be held back, which will of course help Putin, because it will help keep Russians from asking the questions they might ask if they see a more transparent economic and political system emerge in Ukraine.

In short this dispute matters, but if European states would look beyond the immediate interests of needing energy, they will see that a deal at any price that allows RosUkrEnergo to continue to act as an intermediary will only insure that further crises will occur down the line.  If they come out on the side of transparency, it will be a step towards providing greater energy security for all of Europe than any additional pipeline routes. 

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