- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2009

This week the Russian bear demonstrated it never really hibernated after the dissolution in 1991 of the Soviet Union, of which Russia was the biggest component. The Kremlin’s military leaders on Sunday approved a plan to deploy ships permanently in friendly ports around the world. And yesterday, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Romania, Croatia and Turkey all reported a cutoff in gas shipments from Russia through Ukraine due to Russia having cut Ukraine off from natural gas shipments in a dispute over pricing and supposedly overdue payments.

Naval power projection has been a key component of foreign policy since the days of the Phoenician traders, Carthaginians and Romans and later the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and British, to name a few. Revanchist Russia, greatly miffed and embarrassed by its fall from superpower status, sees a resurgent navy as a way to project itself in foreign affairs. Last month, four Russian warships visited Venezuela and comrade Hugo Chavez for joint maneuvers before cruising to Cuba, comrade Fidel Castro’s abode. Russian deputy chief of staff Anatoly Nogovitsyn said, without providing details, that Russia was talking with foreign governments to station warships around the world permanently. In August, a Russian diplomat said the navy would make more use of a port in Syria, home of comrade Bashar al-Assad. The navy is already in negotiations with the Russia-backed breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia for a permanent Black Sea port there.

Meanwhile, back on land, Russia has made no secret of its fury over Ukraine’s tilt to the West and away from being pulled into a Russian sphere of influence, if not hegemony.

Regardless of the legitimacy of any claims by Russia’s Gazprom, the actions by the world’s largest gas company in cutting off supplies to Ukraine were, as the European Union stated, “without prior warning and in clear contradiction with the assurances given by the highest Russian and Ukrainian authorities to the European Union.” Russia had done the same thing before, both in 2006 and again in March (the latter being a cut of half the supply).

Despite this unacceptable Russian behavior, individual countries have continued to make deals that make them ever more reliant on Russia for many years to come.

Soon after the 2006 cutoff, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had proposed a common energy policy by the European Union over the next 15 years to guarantee supply security. That idea soon died in the yang and yin between the recognized need for a common market and nations acting in their own long-term energy security interests. Indeed, Germany itself, despite Mrs. Merkel’s warnings, is among those countries that view Russia as a key strategic partner and are only too willing to rely on Gazprom. Germans note they have never faced a cutoff from Russia, even during the Cold War, but feeding a bear may only mean - as Winston Churchill said of appeasers and crocodiles - you are the last to be eaten.

On the other side are former Central European Soviet-bloc nations, like Ukraine, that have experience with Russia’s small-carrot/big-stick policies and believe it will continue to use Gazprom as a blunt instrument of foreign policy. They note that Russia has become increasingly aggressive and is reclaiming its Cold War rhetoric and stance.

The United States in the months and years ahead needs to have policies that encourage Russian enlightenment, but which also are not blind if - figuratively or literally - the lights go out, or threaten to go out, in European democracies or elsewhere.

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