Vladimir Putin Wages a Cold War With a Heating Fuel

Thursday, January 8, 2009

RUSSIA HAS been piously insisting that its latest midwinter cutoff of gas deliveries to Ukraine -- and now the rest of Europe -- is the result of a commercial dispute and not a part of Moscow's long-standing campaign to undermine Ukraine's pro-Western government. So why, then, would Russian state television have devoted prime time on both Monday and Tuesday to broadcasting staged meetings at which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ostentatiously vilified Ukraine's president and ordered the state gas company to cut off deliveries?

Mr. Putin's televised "working sessions" with Alexei Miller, the chairman of the state gas monopoly Gazprom, were scripted with ludicrous heavy-handedness. In each, Mr. Putin disingenuously inquired about details of Russia's dispute with Ukraine, and Mr. Miller replied by portraying the Ukrainian government as thieving, deceptive and unreliable. On Monday, Mr. Putin cynically sympathized with the consumers of Ukraine, then ordered a reduction in the gas that transits Ukraine to other European countries. On Tuesday, he decreed that the pipeline be shut down altogether -- a measure that left not just Ukraine but a dozen other countries without energy deliveries.

Is this really the way to resolve what has been a byzantine bilateral argument over prices and transit fees? Of course not -- but that's not Mr. Putin's objective. The real aim is to advance Russia's aggressive strategy of using its energy exports to divide Europe and undermine those states it still considers its rightful subjects, beginning with Ukraine. Listen to Mr. Putin's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin: "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." Viktor Yushchenko was democratically elected Ukraine's president in 2004 after a Moscow-backed vote-rigging operation backfired. Like Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, the Ukrainian leader strongly favors the entry of his country into NATO. Mr. Putin responded to Mr. Saakashvili with an invasion last August; now he has launched an offensive against Mr. Yushchenko.

Some in Europe will no doubt buy Mr. Rogozin's argument, just as they blame Mr. Saakashvili for the Russian troops still entrenched on Georgian territory. Like its Georgian counterpart, Ukraine's government has many weaknesses, which Mr. Putin has ruthlessly exploited. But the real message of this cold week is the same that European governments have repeatedly received -- and largely ignored -- in recent years. Mr. Putin's regime plainly intends to use Europe's dependence on Russian energy to advance an imperialist and anti-Western geopolitical agenda. The only rational response is a dramatic acceleration of the European Union's search for alternative sources of energy -- and greater support for those countries that Russia seeks to subjugate.

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