The Times of London reports:
Vladimir Putin’s handling of the gas row is folly. He has found an efficient way of converting Russia’s supposed zone of influence into a zone of countries that mistrust or loathe Russia, and are urgently looking for ways to reduce their dependence on it. If Russia has alienated even Bulgaria, its staunchest supporter within the European Union – but this week its bitter critic – then it really has problems.
The basic judgment in the row has remained the same from the start. Russia and Ukraine are both wrong, but Russia is more so. “It is not our problem. It is the problem of the transit country and they must solve it,” the Russian Prime Minister told the leaders of Slovakia, Bulgaria and Moldova, countries badly hit by the gas stoppages and suffering particularly cold winters.
“In my view, European officials could do more to put pressure on the transit country to ensure European interests,” Mr Putin said earlier at his residence outside Moscow.
Ukraine’s leaders have handled the talks badly, so lost in clinging on to their own political seesaw that they did not realise that the three-year-old row was about to ignite again.
And they have tried to have it both ways, wanting independence from Russia but not wanting to pay the market price for gas. They have failed to try to compensate by renegotiating transit fees. They have made a mess and a vulnerability out of a strong position, as the country that carries the pipes between one of the world’s largest suppliers and its main customers.
But Russia has been worse, in its peremptory demand for a more than doubling of gas prices to Ukraine, which no Ukrainian leader could accept and survive. The result is that countries that saw themselves as Russia’s allies, or at least its respectful customers, are now furious.
The Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico said his country had 11 days of gas reserves left. “After 12 days, we will be obliged to resort to measures never seen in our history,” he said.
Sergei Stanishev, the Prime Minister of Bulgaria – where temperatures fell to minus 21 C (-6F) this week – told Mr Putin: “The biggest risk for both Russia and Ukraine is the issue of trust. The dispute has been running for a few years but it should not turn third countries into hostages.” It’s not quite like throwing shoes at President Bush but given, the subservience Mr Putin expects from the former Soviet bloc, it comes close.
The Bulgarian Government may impose more gas rationing, according to reports yesterday, despite riots by hundreds of protesters that gripped Sofia yesterday. Protesters are angry at the gas cuts this week, which have left parts of the country without heating, as well as widespread corruption, which led the EU to suspend aid earlier this year. Bulgaria asked the EU this week for help in finding new gas supplies other than Russia. Given that Bulgaria has spent the past few years alarming the EU by courting gas links with Russia, this is an about-turn.
Mr Putin may talk of selling more gas eastwards, not west, but he has overplayed a weak hand. Energy prices have fallen below the level at which his Government’s budget is balanced. President Medvedev said that Gazprom, the state gas giant, had lost $1.1 billion from the fall in exports to Europe because of the dispute. “Our country cannot lose such money,” he said on state television.
But in warning Ukraine that “the time for presents is over”, he illustrates the Russian mistake. More efficiently than the EU or Nato have managed, he has reminded Ukraine, and all other former members of the Soviet bloc, why it should look west, not east, for its friends.