Jonathan Worthington :: jnthn.net

Gassy politics

It seems to me that Russia - or at least it's government - rather fancies itself as a superpower again. That isn't necessarily a bad thing; in fact, I'd agree with them that a multi-polar world is much more desirable than a uni-polar one, with just one superpower (which is the situation we have right now - though decreasingly - with the USA). Russia, after all, has an enormous amount of land, a great deal of natural resources and an educated population. It's also trying to get itself in on foreign policy; to quote Pravda: "The world has started to respect Russia and take Russia’s opinion into consideration. This is Russia’s major achievement in 2008. The future of 2009 is rather vague because of the financial crisis, which has all chances to develop into a global political crisis. There are two things which identify Russia's international results in 2008. The first one of them is the conflict in South Ossetia. It was the first time in the post-Soviet history of the world, when Russia stood up against the US will..."

Well, for some definition of respect. It's completely right that Russia - as with any nation - should be able to have its opinions listened to. There shouldn't be an "us and them" cold-war style attitude towards Russia, because that war ended just short of two decades ago. And Russia, with different concerns and perspectives on things, has some worthwhile opinions to offer. However, forcing opinions on people so they can't not hear them doesn't count as being respected. That's bullying. And I fear Russia is starting to wander into that territory.

I'd love to believe that the Russia-Ukraine gas standoff was a purely commercial dispute, but I can't any more. An interview of the Gazprom chief by Prime Minister Putin - in which Putin authorizes a course of action involving reducing the gas supplied - makes is especially hard to hold such a point of view. If it's purely a commercial dispute between two businesses, why would we see such involvement - especially in a way that is only bound to inflame the situation rather than to work towards a resolution?

I've spent some time pointing out some negatives about Russian policy here, but I could I shouldn't just point the finger at Russia here and assume guilt on their part. While I don't like the way they are playing it out politically, it certainly is plausible that Ukraine really have not paid the bill they were supposed to. Would I, as a contractor, go on supplying my services to a client who wasn't paying their bills? Well, of course not - I'd suspend services to them until payment was received. And if that is the situation, then I can't deny Gazprom's right to take actions as they have. Ukrainian politics are hardly straightforward either; the allies that led the Orange Revolution are hardly allies any more, and if one of them can be seen to be the "savior" in this situation it's likely to earn them muchly-wanted political capital domestically.

That said, I have to wonder whether the current situation would exist had Ukraine been supportive of Russia's invasion of Georgia last year, or if Ukraine had been aligning itself more with Russia rather than seeking Nato and EU membership. If you step back a bit into history, the territory that is now Ukraine was part of the heart of old Rus, and Kiev the capital. Thus for historical reasons as well as current geopolitical ones, it's not hard to see how at Russia would prefer to have Ukraine it it's "sphere of influence". And if there is a political motive behind the current gas situation, I have to wonder if it's along the lines of, "hey Ukraine, look where not aligning yourself with Russia leaves you!"

So what do I think will happen? Well, at the end of the day, I don't think anybody is going to pay Russia for gas that they don't receive. And given it earns them money - and money is a rather important thing to be earning in these times - I don't see how they can afford to sustain the standoff for too long. Also, they have to balance serving a reminder that "oh yeah, you have to 'respect' our opinions" with not making it a huge priority for European leaders to get much of Europe off its current dependence on Russian gas - which will also hurt their income in the longer term. So I expect that it won't be overly long before we see this dispute resolved in some way. It probably pays Russia to do it soon, while public perception is still more undecided whether Ukraine or Russia is to blame here (honestly, I don't know which - I've no insider information or anything). But if they're seen as not quickly getting the gas flowing again and it leads to humanitarian issues, I suspect that unless they can pull something out that shows the public that this was unarguably Ukraine's fault then Russia's image will come out with more of a bruising than Ukraine's.

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