In gas fight, Putin long on swagger but short on savvy

8th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

Russia's recent aggressive tactics are leading some experts and officials to wonder what the country's true motives are.

Moscow -- Possession, the saying goes, is nine-tenths of the law.

But if his country possesses more gas than any other, Vladimir Putin is now hard-pressed to show Russia also has the other one-tenth -- trustworthiness -- as the EU reels from gas cuts despite Moscow's vow it would keep the flow going, experts say.

The powerful prime minister has long made the case that Russia is under no obligation to sell gas to Ukraine at discounts, harking back to the central planning that governed their ties when both were part of the Soviet Union.

Early last month, Putin reiterated again that, as a sovereign state, Ukraine's ongoing transition to paying world market rates for Russian gas supplies would continue, though he said that this could take place "gently."

When the Russian and Ukrainian gas companies failed, however, to reach a deal on payment of arrears and new prices for 2009 by a New Year's Eve deadline, Moscow responded, as it had warned it would, by halting gas supply to Kiev.

And the anything-but-gentle fashion in which the powerful Russian prime minister this week ordered deeper cuts in supplies sent to clients via Ukraine has left Europe stunned by his "hardball" tactics and wary of Moscow's motives.

"This looks like a lame attempt to show that Ukraine is to blame" for the gas shortages that have hit Europe in recent days, said Maria Lipman, foreign policy analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. "But it is hard to see what political gain Russia gets from this. If Russia is merely pursuing its commercial interest and trying to facilitate better deals for itself then it is not using the right methods."

It is this renewed anxiety over Putin's means that is fueling worry over his resurgent nation's goals -- goals that some experts say lie well beyond simply being paid more, and more promptly, by Ukraine for the Russian gas it consumes.

"If all you are seeking is better conditions for yourself, and nothing else, then you should use more sophisticated, softer and more cunning ways than applying such direct pressure on your partner," Lipman said.

Though Russian gas giant Gazprom has put forward a range of offers and incentives on a new gas supply deal with Ukraine in recent months, some experts see Putin's position as too rigid and thus ultimately counter-productive.

"This is where the tragedy lies," said political analyst Alexei Malashenko. "This is where 'strong' Putin is in fact weak. He is driven by emotion and is a poor pragmatist."

Experts speculate Putin's tactics in the gas dispute may be aimed as much at subverting Ukraine's pro-West President Viktor Yushchenko and dividing the European Union as they are at collecting the gas money from Ukraine.

Indeed even Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO and a loud official voice of Russia's opposition to Ukraine's goal of joining the alliance, suggested that Moscow had larger designs in mind in the current dispute.

Russia "would like to receive from western Europe a much clearer position with respect to the new pipelines," Rogozin told Moscow Echo radio station. He was referring to plans for two new gas pipelines, Nordstream and South Stream, that are designed to transport Russian gas to EU clients via the Baltic Sea to the north and the Black Sea to the south, bypassing Ukraine. "It's clear that if Europe wants to have guaranteed natural gas supplies, as well as oil in its pipelines, then it cannot fully rely on its wonderful ally, Mr. Yushchenko," Rogozin said.

Over the years, Putin has made no secret of his aversion to the rising influence exercised by the United States and the EU in Ukraine, Georgia and other ex-Soviet republics close to Russia's borders.

His aides however, while claiming to have accepted that the West will blame Russia for the current crisis -- whatever its true origins and outcomes -- reject suggestions that Putin has anything but straightforward motives.

"Being the man who initiated a concept of global energy security and European energy security, Putin is the last man who would do anything to undermine this security," his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told AFP.

It was important to recognize that Gazprom was today pumping the same volumes of gas to customers in Europe that it was prior to the crisis, Peskov said.

If those clients were not receiving the gas, the fault lay elsewhere -- specifically with Ukraine, he said.

"It is wrong to suggest that Putin is trying to apply some kind of political pressure here," Peskov added. "All we can do is ask people to study the facts."

Chris Weafer, chief strategist with UralSib investment bank in Moscow, said that if Russia did have a motive other than obtaining payment for its gas, it was to elicit Europe's help in managing its relations with Ukraine. "Russia would very much like the EU to take some role in 'controlling' Ukraine," Weafer said. "They definitely would like to see the EU applying pressure on Ukraine to make a deal."

Christopher Boian/AFP/Expatica

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