NEWS ANALYSIS: By Judy Dempsey,
International Herald Tribune, Europe, Friday, December 16, 2005
BERLIN – A year after Russia failed to get its favorite candidate elected as
president of Ukraine and instead had to settle for the pro-Western leader
Viktor Yushchenko, Moscow is at it again, this time using natural gas as a
weapon to wield influence over its neighbor and former satellite.
Both countries are playing a high-stakes game of chicken that could have
unpredictable consequences for the region and for Europe. In dispute are
transit fees it receives from Russia for the Russian gas piped across
Ukraine and into Western Europe.
The battle pits Gazprom, the Russian state-owned energy giant where the
Naftogaz, the gas pipeline operator owned by the Ukrainian government.
policy – this time tightening the noose around Ukraine by insisting that the
price of natural gas exports to the country be raised from the equivalent of
$50 per 1,000 cubic meters, or 35,300 cubic feet, to more than $220.
But unlike several other former Soviet republics that have had to swallow
such increases, Ukraine is in a strong position to fight back: It owns one
of the biggest gas transit routes to Europe. More than 80 percent of
Russia’s natural gas exports to Western Europe have to pass through
If Russia increases its gas prices to Ukraine, then Kiev can push up the
transit fees it charges Gazprom, from $1.09 per 100 kilometers for 1,000
cubic meters of gas to perhaps as high as $2. (Gazprom has already said it
is willing to raise the transit fees to as much as $1.75.)
This dependence on Ukraine explains why Gazprom, with financial support
As Ukraine digs in its heels, Gazprom has appealed for support from
Gazprom says Ukraine is threatening to cut off supplies to Western Europe,
which obtains a quarter of its natural gas from Russia. Ukraine says it is
only responding to Gazprom’s threats to stop delivering natural gas to
Ukraine – 29 billion cubic meters per year – if the two sides cannot reach a
Alexander Medvedev, deputy chairman of Gazprom, denies using such crude
tactics, or that the Russian government is using his company to blackmail
other countries. Gazprom is simply applying market rules, Medvedev said in
an interview in Berlin.
“The EU said Ukraine was a market-status economy and it wants to join the
World Trade Organization, so we are simply applying commercial criteria,”
Few experts in the region believe the threats from either side. They say
that if energy supplies to Europe were disrupted, the credibility of both
countries would be undermined.
Igor Burakovsky, director of the independent Institute for Economic
“It is all propaganda that Gazprom will charge Ukraine $220,” Burakovsky
said. “It will be lower. I can’t say how much, but Ukraine will have to
start paying higher prices for its energy. It is also propaganda that
Gazprom would threaten supplies to Ukraine and Europe. Its credibility as
Still, Putin has in the past used Gazprom as his foreign policy instrument,
albeit with mixed success. Gazprom raised natural gas prices to Poland,
forcing Poland to seek other suppliers and develop alternative sources of
energy. It raised gas prices to Georgia, which forced that country to
introduce economic reforms. And this month Gazprom announced it would
“Russia was punishing Moldova for its pro-Western stance,” said Iwona
Wisniewska, an energy expert at the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw.
But Ukraine is different. The former Soviet republic is richly endowed with
iron, aluminum, metals, grain and coal, and it has a substantial armaments
industry, as well as an extensive gas transportation system. Ukraine was
once the second-largest contributor to the Soviet economy, after Russia, and
Russia remains its biggest trading partner. Ethnic Russians make up more
than one-sixth of the population.
It was Ukraine’s independence in the early 1990s that dealt a deep
psychological and political blow to Russia’s prestige and status as a great
power. Russia has tried to woo back its former satellite, but Yushchenko
The EU’s decision this month to give Ukraine market-economy status and
support its entry into the World Trade Organization was a welcome lift for
Yushchenko but a blow to Russia. It was then that the polemics between
Gazprom and Ukraine escalated.
Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations,
said the game may be over for both sides. “These developments with the EU
showed Putin that he can give up the idea of rebuilding the Commonwealth of
Independent States in the old fashion,” Rahr said.
“Putin is now saying, You have to choose between going to the West or else
supporting the idea of a Single Economic Space under Russia,” Rahr said,
referring to a proposal made in 2003 at a summit of the Commonwealth of
Independent States, which is made up of 11 former Soviet republics. “Anyone
outside the Single Economic Space will be treated as a foreign capitalist.”
Ukraine, too, will have to accept that the old days of cheap Russian gas are
Despite all the rhetoric on both sides, Ukrainian economists have said there
could be a silver lining in Russia’s plans to raise energy prices.
Burakovsky said pressure by Russia could finally speed up reforms of the
energy sector, which he said was corrupt and inefficient. Cheap energy, he
added, has given the energy-intensive manufacturing industry no reason to
“We have been talking about raising energy prices and introducing a cash
payment system for our energy imports from Russia for many, many months,”
Burakovsky said. “Nothing was done. Maybe now, finally, the inevitability of
higher energy prices will precipitate some reforms.”
Politically, higher energy costs could play into the hands of those
pro-Russian parties competing in Ukraine’s parliamentary elections,
scheduled for March, because they could blame Yushchenko’s pro-Western
stances as the reason for Russia’s move.
In that case, Rahr said, there is a chance for the EU to play a role, by
opening up its markets to Ukrainian commodities. “If Europe goes on about
closer relations with Ukraine,” he said, “here is a chance to lift some of
the trade barriers.” -30-