Russia’s Gas Weapon is a Boomerang
20 July 2009
People have begun to take Russia seriously. In 2005, immediately after signing the agreement on building the North Stream pipeline, we announced that we now possessed an energy weapon. “Not to worry, it’s just words,” Europe responded. But the Kremlin has since then actually used the weapon.
And Europe has at long last started to take Russia at its word. Europe has realised that for Russia gas is not a commodity but a weapon. Yet all it takes to make it ineffective is to refrain from buying the stuff. Last Winter, Europe cuts its imports of Russian gas very significantly and just last week signed the agreement for the building of the Nabucco pipeline. So yes, the Kremlin is quite right: gas is a weapon. And I know the name and class of weapon it is – a boomerang.
The Kremlin engaged in a gas war with the Ukraine in January this year. Not many thought that Russia would, at a time of economic crisis, get itself into a war guaranteed to wreck its image as a gas supplier. But Russia did and was even prepared to go a second round last May/June. Our duumvirate in one voice declared openly that the Ukraine did not have the wherewithal to pay for gas from Russia, journalists were bussed to the Novo-Ogaryova pumping station for a triumphant default day, and newspaper columns were filled with articles about how the Ukraine would re-unite with Russia now that it could no longer afford to pay for gas.
Europe and the IMF took this seriously on board this time, to the extent that they actually put the Ukraine in funds. The Kremlin’s threats helped the Ukraine to win funding which it would not have got otherwise.
Ditto with Georgia. The Kremlin’s attempts to do the dirty on Georgia’s president failed for years to gain the attention of the UN and the OSCE. So what if a police station was blown up in Gori. So what if a gas pipeline was sabotaged. So what if a rocket struck near Gori. We said the Georgians dug a fake crater and put rocket parts in it (and also that they had blown up the police station and the gas pipeline themselves). Aww, come on, just petty vandalism.
But at last, after the Russo-Georgian war, the Kremlin began to be taken seriously. To the extent that, no sooner had the Caucasus-2009 military exercises begun (the 2008 exercises rolled over into war) and General Makarov said that the Georgian were “flashing weapons” than a US destroyer berthed at Batumi, Joe Biden visited Tbilisi, and President Obama discussed the war with Georgia at the Kremlin, where, according to some sources, he obtained assurances that last year’s war would not be renewed.
In short, no one used to believe the Kremlin. No one believed there could be a war with Georgia, that gas was a weapon, that Russia could cut off the Ukraine’s gas and say that the Ukrainians had themselves turned off their supplies. But people believe the Kremlin now.
Suddenly it was clear to all that the Kremlin’s policies were not those of a reprobate country but rather those of a total hooligan. Like dealing with a neighbour who stomps about saying: “Listen, bitch. You got no respect. Give me a grand or else I’ll drown your cat, poison your dog, and set fire to your house!” For a while, no one believes him, reckoning he’s all right really, just somewhat confused. But then the cat is found drowned and the dog poisoned. What happens next, however, is not that this neighbour is suddenly respected and $1000 handed to him. No: the police are called in.
And it is in this sense that the next two months will be key for Russia. Because that is how much time the unbalanced neighbour has in order to decide what he is going to do: set fire to the house, which is now being watched over by the police, or shut up.
Of course, the promises made to Obama can be broken and the war restarted with Georgia, claiming that yes, we promised not to have a war but that swine Saakashvili started it. Gas supplies to the Ukraine can be stopped, with grounds found by nit-picking at commas in contracts. And Nabucco’s gas suppliers can be offered three times as much to sell it to us.
But the cost of any of these things will be an order of magnitude greater. No one will believe that the Georgians attacked themselves, that the Ukrainians cut off their own gas, and that wild attempts to place Europe in a gas pincer are indications of the Kremlin’s peaceful intentions. We said gas is a weapon? They believe us now.
So if we do any of these things, we will have stopped being a hooligan and become an outcast country. And how does one recognise an outcast country? By the fact that their leaders’ Swiss bank accounts get frozen.