Washington Sees Russian Gas Shut Off as Intended Wedge Between Europeans and Ukraine about its Bid to Join NATO     Print Email
Thursday, 08 January 2009

The Russian shut-off of natural gas supplies to Ukraine (and now to Western Europe) is described by Moscow as a commercial dispute with Kiev about the pricing and debts of Russian energy exports to Ukraine.

But the prevailing analysis in Washington attitudes adds a geopolitical purpose to the Kremlin action: demonstrating Russian determination to prevent further moves to bring Ukraine into NATO.

American experts and former officials note that 80 percent of Russia’s natural gas exports to Western Europe flow through pipelines running across Ukrainian soil. As “the Kremlin has stated that it is unacceptable for a major artery of pipeline to be within a NATO-run country, they will fight this to the last breath”, according to Clifford Gaddy, an American specialist in Russian affairs. Speaking on National Public Radio, he underlined Russia’s special worries after the political orientation of Ukraine because of its geographical control of the pipelines carrying Russian gas exports – a resource seen in the Kremlin as a prime lever in any restoration of Russian influence and power in Europe.

During the crisis, Russia has maintained the much-smaller flows of natural gas that reach Western Europe via the Baltic States. By choosing the moment of winter cold for a commercial and political showdown with Ukraine, Moscow is seeking not only to intimidate pro-Western factions in Ukraine but also to drive a wedge between Ukraine and consumers in the European Union and NATO member states who can be tempted to blame Ukraine for the shortages of natural gas in their countries.

The EU has not taken a collective position on the dispute other than urging Moscow and Kiev to settle their quarrel. But European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso managed to bring the representatives of Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, and Naftogaz, to come to Brussels for negotiations that failed this week to solve the basic issues. But the acrimonious talks did produce agreement, in principle, for the EU to dispatch observers to Ukraine to monitor gas flows and ensure that Ukraine does not “siphon off” for its own use a portion of the gas exported by Russia for customers in Western Europe. This outcome seemed likely to be fresh fodder for critics of the controversial campaign, backed by the Bush administration, to move toward NATO membership for Ukraine.

This plan has aroused strong opposition in some European allied nations that fear it will antagonize Russia. The latest round in this wintertime energy hardships – sometimes called a new kind of “cold war” – is likely to increase fears elsewhere in Europe that the time is far from ripe for the West to try bringing Ukraine into NATO.

Opposition to moving Ukraine forward in the candidacy path for NATO has been publicly spearheaded by Germany, the largest single Western customer for Russian gas. Emphasizing the need for “constructive engagement” with Moscow, particularly on energy issues, Berlin is working with Moscow to build a new pipeline directly from Russia into Germany, called Nordstream. It would by-pass Poland and the Baltic States (and Ukraine), and enable Germany to assume a larger role as a transit route and distribution node for Russian natural gas exports to Western Europe.

A very different view prevails in Washington. Nick Burns, until recently the top State Department official on European affairs, characterized Russian tactics as, “intimidation of the highest order.” Speaking on the same NPR program as Gaddy, he pointed to the fact that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had brought in television cameras to show him cutting off the gas flow, making it into what Burns called “a very public spectacle meant to intimidate the Ukrainian government and people.” In Ukraine the government is split into pro-Russian and anti-Russian factions, with opposing views about NATO membership.

Another prominent U.S. analyst, Marshall Goldman of Harvard University said that “Moscow’s control over energy supplies gives it more power to influence Europe than the Red Army did during the Cold War.”