Imperialist Gas

Sunday, April 23, 2006

RUSSIAN FOREIGN policy seems to grow more aggressive with each week that President Vladimir Putin serves as chairman of the Group of Eight nations, which consists of seven rich industrial democracies and his own resource-exporting autocracy. Last week the chairman of the state-controlled gas exporter, Gazprom, which provides a quarter of the European Union's supply, crudely threatened E.U. governments that his company will sell its product in other markets unless they give way to its "international ambitions."

The chairman, Alexei Miller, was reacting to reports of British unease at the possibility that Gazprom might seek to purchase Britain's largest gas company. With a cynicism reminiscent of former Soviet bureaucrats, Mr. Miller denounced supposed Western attempts to "politicize questions of gas supply," even though Mr. Putin is overtly using Gazprom and its near-monopoly control of energy and pipelines to restore Moscow's dominion over neighbors such as Belarus and Armenia.

Lacking Soviet military might or a large economy, Mr. Putin now describes Russia as an "energy superpower." He offered a taste of what this might mean in January, when he personally ordered a cutoff of gas to Ukraine -- which had the temerity to reject his candidate in a presidential election -- even though this also meant a shortage of gas in Vienna, Rome and Berlin. Given Mr. Putin's consolidation of power at home and stated regret over the collapse of the Soviet empire, there is good reason for disquiet over Gazprom's acquisition strategy.

As for the politicization of economic markets, Europeans wondering about Russia's intentions need look no farther than Georgia and Moldova, two former Soviet republics that, like Ukraine, have attempted to consolidate democracies and establish independence from Moscow. Late last month Russia abruptly banned the import of their wines, even though these supply more than 40 percent of the Russian market and account for a large part of the two countries' foreign exports. The health reasons cited by Russian officials were unserious; the real reason was the Kremlin's ire over arguments by Georgia and Moldova that Russia should not be allowed into the World Trade Organization until it stops supporting separatist regimes on their territories and removes troops it was bound to withdraw years ago.

Mr. Putin's attempts to strangle Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine and to consolidate control over Belarus haven't slackened even as he prepares to host President Bush and the other G-8 leaders at a St. Petersburg summit this summer. In fact he clearly hopes the summit will ratify Russia's return as a global power with the right to its own sphere of influence. President Bush has resisted suggestions that he short-circuit this by skipping the summit or proposing Russia's removal from the G-8.

His administration did, however, take a little-noticed but important step last week toward pricking Mr. Putin's inflated ambitions. At a G-8 meeting in Moscow, U.S. and European diplomats insisted that Belarus, Georgia and Moldova be added to the agenda for discussions at preparatory meetings leading up to the summit. That should make it hard for Mr. Putin to exclude a review of his bullying at the summit itself. If St. Petersburg can become the forum at which Western leaders make clear they will not accept Russia's use of economic blackmail or military force to dominate its neighbors, or its backing of a dictatorship in Belarus, then the summit might be worth having after all.

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