07 January 2009

Russia and the Gas Weapon

At considerable cost to its state-run gas company, Russia is attempting to impose an energy crisis on much of Europe in an effort to force Ukraine to pay higher prices. The Russians accuse the Ukrainians of siphoning off (i.e. stealing) some of the gas that's meant to traverse the country's pipelines and go to the rest of Europe. They also want to end Ukraine's Soviet-era discount rates for Russian gas, while the Ukrainians want Gazprom, the Russian company, to pay more for its pipeline privileges. According to this report, conditions may reach the level of "humanitarian crisis" in some places as the two nations wage a war of wills.

In this country, I expect a reflexive presumption that Russia is in the wrong, and that this is part of Prime Minister Putin's agenda of re-establishing Russian hegemony in Europe. It looks like another instance of Russia bullying a smaller country because it can. In some ways, Putin's Russia may be more infuriating to the rest of the world, and maybe here especially, because (in spite of attempts to paint Putin as a commie) the country doesn't seem to stand for anything except for its own interests. The Russians aren't out to spread communism anymore, nor are they peddling some exportable model of authoritarian government, as some neocons fear. But it's still obnoxious of Russians to appear to assume a right to dominate its neighbors for no better reason than because it's a big country. But why is it more obnoxious for one country to act out of undisguised self-interest than for others to act similarly from allegedly ideological motives? Perhaps because the Russians are now more likely to argue that all the other countries are really doing the same thing they are. They're less likely now to play along with the game that allows their antagonists to claim that they're acting or fighting for some abstract philosophical principle or other higher motive. In this sense, the Soviet Union was easier to work with in an Orwellian fashion. By comparison, Putin's Russia presents a kind of wake-up call to the world, signalling that, in this century, national self-interest will matter more than ideology.

The present dispute, meanwhile, seems like something perfectly capable of being settled through negotiation. Just because Russia is involved doesn't make it a moral issue and people who want to make it one had better keep their noses out of it.

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