Gas Dispute Prompts European Questions About Russia's Reliability

PARIS, France -- Europeans once feared Russian warheads; now they’re wary of Russian gas taps—and wonder about Russia’s viability as a strategic partner.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

In language reminiscent of the Cold War, European observers and consumers castigated Russia on Monday for shutting off gas supplies to Ukraine over a price dispute, threatening shipments throughout Europe. The cutoff, Russia’s critics say, was Ukraine’s punishment for reaching out to the West.

Beneath the criticism lay deeper questions about Russia’s role in today’s Europe. The gas shutoff came the same day Russia assumed the leadership of the G8, after years of seeking a full-fledged place in the elite group of rich nations.

“The novelty of 2006 is Russia’s reappearance on the map of world threats,” said the Italian daily La Stampa. “Only its tool has changed: Instead of nuclear warheads and the international communist movement, today there is the gas tap.”

“In the year of the Russian G8, the West must decide, for the umpteenth time, how to act toward a Russian czar with a claim not anymore on their lives, but on their stoves.”

In the wake of the European criticism, Russian officials said late Monday they would increase the amount of gas shipped to Europe to make up for gas they claimed was being siphoned off by Ukraine.

Most analysts expect Russia and Ukraine to reach agreement soon, since Russia needs European consumers as much as they need Russian gas.

Still, the crisis is the latest sign that Russia has its own idea of where it fits in the global marketplace and political arena. And that idea doesn’t always match the dependable, predictable Russia that Europe dreams of.

“Russia is saying clearly to its partners that it is an energy superpower, saying, ‘We are actors on the world stage. You should listen to us,’” said Thomas Gomart, an expert at the French Institute of International Relations, a Paris think-tank.

Beyond re-igniting European concerns about energy security, the crisis threatened to revive anti-Russian sentiment that last flared in Europe a year ago, during Ukraine’s democratic revolution.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been worrying Europe by clamping down on foreign nongovernmental organizations and with his perceived backsliding on Russian democracy.

“Seeing Russia use this weapon is bound to have a political impact on the image of Russia as a well-behaved neighbor,” Philip Hanson, a Russia expert at Birmingham University in England, said of the gas shutoff.

The gas dispute has simmered since the early 1990s, prompting questions of why Russia chose to cut off supplies now—just months before sensitive parliamentary elections in Ukraine.

Moscow “is trying to satisfy its imperial ambitions, paying little attention to the fact that the way it has chosen undermines its reputation as a trade partner,” commentator Slawomir Popowski wrote Monday in Polish daily Rzeczpospolita.

In Poland, the crisis reinforced fears that Russia will play rough to maintain influence over its former satellites. Germany, which depends on Russia for 30 percent of its gas, is also nervous.

“Russia is using unrestrained monopoly power to discipline a politically insubordinate neighbor,” said Werner Hoyer, a senior lawmaker for Germany’s Free Democratic Party.

“Who can guarantee that Russia won’t one day use the gas tap as a way to exert pressure or impose discipline on other countries, such as Germany?”

Russia insists it is only enforcing its commercial rights, demanding that Ukraine pay market price for the gas.

European government officials were cautious about casting blame and alienating Putin. But the cutoff has continent-wide implications and European Union energy ministers will meet Wednesday to discuss it.

Amid the criticism, Russia won a bit of indirect support from Pascal Lamy, the director of the WTO: “Whatever the political or legal problems are, in the short term, these countries should pay for their energy at today’s energy prices to improve the efficiency of their economies.”

Source: AP