- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009


Europeans likely didn’t need much more evidence of how unreliable a partner Russia can be, but last week the Kremlin gave them definitive proof.

In a pricing dispute with Ukraine, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered supplies of natural gas to Europe shut off, just as most of the Continent was at the coldest point of what has been an unusually cold winter.

Europe relies on Russia for 25 percent to 40 percent of its natural gas, and 80 percent of that is shipped through pipelines that cross Ukraine. The cutoff was felt from Turkey to France and was particularly acute in the Balkans and Southeastern Europe, where several countries declared states of emergency.

Russia claims Ukraine is behind in its payments for gas and is seeking $600 million in late fees plus a higher price for future shipments. Ukraine, which is in bad financial shape, says it can’t afford the higher fees and suggests instead that Russia pay more for the use of the pipelines. Russia tried to ship natural gas minus Ukraine’s share, but accused Ukraine of siphoning off for its own use gas intended for elsewhere in Europe.

In any reasonable part of the world, this dispute might be settled by mutually agreed-upon international arbitration. Whatever culpability Ukraine has in this dispute, Russia has motives other than financial. It resents Ukraine’s successful experiment with democracy, its support for Georgia in the recent unpleasantness and especially its plans to join NATO.

All this comes as Russia is reeling from a financial crisis, some, but not all, of its own making. Just as the Kremlin was feeling flat, it was blindsided by the collapse of oil and gas prices. Those revenues fund most of its budget, which now threatens to go into deficit. The ruble is being devalued, the stock market has tanked and foreign investment has dried up, in large part because of the Kremlin’s custom of appropriating foreign-owned firms once they become profitable.

For the Europeans, Russian natural gas is the most readily available, but as long as the Kremlin uses price and availability as blunt instruments of foreign policy, they would be foolish to rely on it. This is a wake-up call for Europe to search for alternative sources delivered through more secure routes.

Dale McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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