It is not
every day I quote Le Monde with approval, so mark it
on your calendar. I agree with the Le Monde editorial
from Monday that described the Russian cut-off of natural gas
to Ukraine the day before as a “declaration of war”.
Not the first in the 21st century, as they put it -- they are
typically forgetting about 9/11 -- but in its nature a portentous
act of aggression.
serious leftwing daily went on to note: "One country cuts
off the energy supply of another because it doesn't give into
its demands. … Russia, the largest natural gas producer
in the world, pushed the button on the gas weapon."
For those who haven’t
been reading the papers over the holidays (and I envy you), the
event happened on New Year’s morning. The Russian government,
on short notice, told the Ukrainian government that it was unilaterally
revising the easy contractual terms on which the Ukraine had been
receiving most of its natural gas. The price would increase by
460 percent, and the only thing the Russians would negotiate was
a three-month phase-in. The Ukrainians replied that they could
not sign. They could not come up with that kind of money. The
government of Vladimir Putin was then as good as its word, leaving
Ukraine to freeze in midwinter.
This is the same Russia
who’s previous leader, one Josef Stalin, murdered many millions
of Ukrainians in a man-made famine.
The matter is further
entangled. Most of Russia’s natural gas exports to Western
Europe pass through Ukrainian pipes. The Russians began alleging
that the Ukrainians were tapping into supplies meant for Europe
(at “market rates”), within several hours of the cutback.
In other words, before they could be in a position to know. This
was an incredibly crude and cynical attempt to isolate Ukraine
from its European allies.
work: for the Europeans, and especially the Germans (whose ex-chancellor,
Gerhard Schoeder, just took a well-paid job, fronting for the
Russian oil and gas monopolies), are seriously upset, and not
with Ukraine. At a moment when they are enjoying an exceptionally
cold winter, they see that the Russians can do this to them, next.
They grasp that the
Russian act was pure extortion. It had nothing to do with “a
move to market prices”, but was rather a payback for the
Orange Revolution in Kiev, in which a democratic government came
to power in Ukraine in defiance of overt Russian meddling. Extremely
favourable prices for natural gas continue to be offered to other
ex-Soviet republics (the cheapest being to Belorus, the most backward
and authoritarian of them all), who accept Russian tutelage and
are willing to root out domestic democracy movements. There is
nothing subtle in the Russian use of gas and oil as a geopolitical
weapon. They have the grace of a big stupid bear.
With less clarity,
the Europeans and Americans may now review Mr Putin’s major
overtures to the Chinese dictatorship, and the technological support
he has consistently offered for nuclear developments in Iran.
Fifteen years after the collapse of state Communism, Russia is
again forging an alliance against the West.
The same message is
coming from Russia internally. Mr Putin’s former house “liberal
reformer”, Andrei Illarionov, has resigned in protest. Mr
Illarionov said, “It is one thing to work in a partially
free country, as Russia was six years ago. It's another when the
country has stopped being politically free."
Take note: this man
was the bravest and most impressive in Mr Putin’s circle,
and among the few Russian statesmen trusted in the West. As part
of his job, he was asked to make a public argument, defending
the New Year’s act of extortion against Ukraine as a “free
market reform”. He refused. It may now be seen that his
very presence in the Putin administration was cosmetic.
It was Mr Illarionov,
incidentally, who boldly called attention to the totalitarian
premises in the Kyoto agreement -- which Putin’s Russia
so suddenly and mysteriously bought into, in such a big way. It
was Mr Illarionov who, long before that, took a clear view of
the political dimension of the cartelization of energy supplies.
And Mr Illarionov who suggested that the whole concept of “free
market prices” for the world’s oil and gas is problematic:
for what we have is only a free secondary market, after the machinations
of various authoritarian states that sit on the supplies.
prices are just what we need, to accelerate technological developments
that will make our economies less dependent on e.g. Arab and Russian
energy sources -- opening new fields such as the tar sands of
Canada’s West, while moving eventually beyond carbon. But
such transitions bring suffering.
It is an odd thing
when the single biggest and most consequential event in a year
happens on January 1st. The year 2006 may well prove odd like
2005 Ottawa Citizen