An editorial in the Globe & Mail:
Neither party is innocent in the gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine that is currently gripping Europe, but the former deserves most of the blame for a debacle that may leave millions without heat during a brutal cold snap.
Yesterday, utilities in half a dozen European countries reported complete halts to deliveries of Russian gas due to Moscow’s week-old cut-off of supplies to Ukraine over a pricing disagreement. Almost all of the gas imported from Russia by members of the European Union travels through Ukraine, which buys a portion of the flow.
In its dealings with the Ukrainian government since the 2005 Orange Revolution, Russia’s state-owned natural-gas monopoly, OAO Gazprom, has consistently behaved in bad faith and richly earned its reputation as a blunt tool of Kremlin foreign policy. The current situation is no different.
It became unavoidable when Gazprom suddenly demanded that Ukraine, which has agreed to incrementally bring its cheap energy rates into line with the rest of Europe, more than double its payments for 2009. The two sides had failed to agree on a smaller rise. Like Russia, Ukraine has been slammed by the global financial crisis, and could not possibly meet Gazprom’s terms.
The dispute grew worse on Monday, when the CEO of Gazprom, Alexei Miller, went on television to ask Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s permission to further slash supplies by the amount the company says Ukraine had stolen from gas destined for other countries. Ukraine has almost certainly taken some gas it did not pay for, although Gazprom’s specific claims are impossible to verify.
Mr. Putin’s response? “Yes, cut it today.”
The result is a crisis that is at once artificial and extremely difficult to resolve. Kiev’s and Moscow’s preferred solutions remain miles apart.
Russia’s behaviour is indefensible. While the Kremlin’s disdain for Ukraine’s Western-oriented government is obvious, no amount of intra-Slavic score-settling can compensate for the damage being done to Gazprom’s international reputation. Even Germany, which Moscow has cultivated as a favourite customer, may be unable to meet demand for gas this week. EU meetings and communiqués have meanwhile assumed an air of what passes for alarm in that phlegmatic organization.
Whatever its motivations, the Russian government has demonstrated that it can simply no longer be trusted as an energy supplier for Europe. In addition to forcing Moscow and Kiev back to the negotiating table immediately, the EU should launch a crash energy diversification program.
Yet the people with the most to lose from the Kremlin’s irresponsibility are not in the EU, but in Russia itself. Oil and gas exporting is one of the few productive activities in Russia’s chaotic economy, and the determination of the country’s leaders to use it as a political weapon does not speak highly for their competence.
Russians deserve better from their government, and should demand it.