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With Ukrainian presidential elections slated for 2010, Russia is escalating the gas crisis to discredit President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko in the eyes of the voters. Russian leaders want Ukraine to lose its leverage over Gazprom as a transit country and make Ukraine appear an unreliable partner to the Europeans, thereby justifying expensive, Russian-proposed gas pipe lines that would bypass Ukraine.

The pipelines, like Nord Stream, chaired by former German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder, and South Stream, would only increase Europe’s dependence on Russia. And they would cost a fortune - more than $30 billion. Moreover, the more Europeans rely on Russian gas, the less they will be inclined to stand up to Russia over any foreign policy excesses.

Europe’s dependence on Russian (and Middle Eastern) oil and gas forces America’s European allies to choose between a cheap energy supply and siding with the United States and NATO on key strategic issues, such as missile defense or opposing Russia’s treatment of Georgia. This also explains why Europe goes wobbly on Iran or is trying to bail out Hamas.

Though it’s primarily a European crisis, the United States can help. Washington can support Europe’s diversification of pipeline routes in Eurasia, specifically, construction of the Nabucco pipeline from the Caspian via Turkey. The United States should also encourage EU members to coordinate their energy policy dealings with Moscow.

The next administration should encourage Europe to construct more liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals and to develop coal, nuclear and competitive renewables as sources of affordable electricity. Finally, the United States should support Ukraine’s efforts to modernize its energy sector, including reforms to make it more efficient and transparent.

As frigid Arctic winds blow across Europe, it is time to face the cold facts. Dependence on Russian gas undermines European security. Russia is likely to use its energy muscle to impose its geopolitical agenda on its neighbors, today and in the future. To change this situation, Europe, including Ukraine, must work with the United States to diversify sources of energy and stand up to Russian bullying.

Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Katherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.