Roman Kupchinsky, a partner in the U.S.-based consulting firm AZEast, writing in the Moscow Times, confirms our editorial last week which condemned the mendacious disinformation campaign of Kremlin stooge Vladimir Frolov (it’s highly unusual for a newspaper to allow one op-ed columnist to attack another, a humiliating blow for Frolov — the word “disinformation” actually appears in the MT’s headline — and one for which the MT is to be commended):
Did Russia really score a knockout over Ukraine in the second round of the gas fight, as public relations consultant Vladimir Frolov would have us believe in his comment in Tuesday’s issue of The Moscow Times?
The millions of Bulgarians, Serbs, Moldovans and others who sat huddled in their cold homes for a week in temperatures of minus 10 to 15 degrees Celsius don’t care who won the PR contest and probably would laugh bitterly at Frolov’s Komsomol-like glee with the Kremlin’s “victory.”
This conflict should never have happened in the first place. On Oct. 2, Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signed a memorandum of understanding that Moscow unilaterally cancelled on Jan. 12. The memorandum was supposed to pave the way for normalized gas ties between the two countries. Russia, according to the agreement, should have granted Ukraine a three-year grace period before paying “European gas prices,” Ukraine would be allowed to resell gas to Europe, and RosUkrEnergo was supposed to be eliminated as the middleman.
Then suddenly, after the Ukrainians repaid their gas debt (minus a controversial penalty fee of $615 million), the talks broke down. Some attribute the breakdown to Ukraine’s foolish rejection of the price Gazprom offered — $250 per thousand cubic meters. Others believe Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko ordered his delegation to leave the talks, while still others say Gazprom insisted on the repayment of the $615 million penalty before signing a contract. On Jan. 1, the Russian side closed the gas taps to Ukraine and the conflict escalated. Suddenly, on Jan. 7, Gazprom deputy head Alexander Medvedev claimed that the Ukrainian side acted on its own by closing the pipelines supplying gas to Europe. But soon it became clear that this disinformation would not fly because the taps were located inside Russia. At this point, Gazprom and the Russian government claimed that since Kiev was stealing Russian gas for its own use, Moscow was forced to close down the system.
The volley of claims and counterclaims that followed is not as important as the fact that the Kremlin seemed more interested in its image than in finding a way to end the senseless conflict.
This leads to Frolov and his article, which reads like a public relations boss patting himself on the back and celebrating the triumph of image-making — a cover name often used for disseminating disinformation,
Moscow concedes it has lost more than $800 million in revenues during the conflict. If the original disagreement with Ukraine was over a $615 million penalty fee, which should have been settled in court, then Russia clearly lost. Had the Russia gone to court and won, the Ukrainians would have been forced to pay and the gas war might have been put on hold until next year.
It appears, however, that Moscow revised its strategy in December and chose to go for the Ukrainian jugular with little concern for the hapless Europeans.
Frolov claimed that “the investment in sophisticated PR capabilities paid off … few Western newspapers and television programs described Russia as a bully wielding its ‘energy weapon’ and trying to bring down a burgeoning Ukrainian democracy.” But even Putin, who was praised by his supporters for his tough handling of the situation, told German ARD television that Gazprom sustained image-related losses.
The world press did not take kindly to Gazprom’s disinformation campaign, nor did it side with the Ukrainians. The Los Angeles Times, for example, wrote on Jan. 9 that the gas battle “looks like a calculated strategy by Russia to regain influence over countries that were once part of the Soviet empire and to neutralize European opposition.” On Jan. 13, The Washington Post wrote, “This year, as in previous years, the Russians are claiming that the conflict is purely commercial, not political; that Ukraine is stealing Europe’s gas; that Ukraine is not paying a fair price. But this year, unlike in some previous years, those claims are sounding exceptionally hollow.”
Frolov and other Kremlin boosters would do well to stop rejoicing at Russia’s imaginary PR victory over Ukraine. As the price of gas keeps falling and Russia’s federal budget goes into a serious deficit, it is the Russian people who will suffer the most while the Kremlin’s gas soldiers angrily wave their fists at Kiev and Europe and try to pin the blame on others for their own failures.