Europe is again at the mercy of energy politics. While the Ukrainian-Russian energy crisis promised to be confined and contained, the interconnected nature of the gas supplies made that virtually impossible.
The EU’s apparatchiks have been cognizant of this for some time. The European Commission has made it a top priority to wean member states off Russian energy supplies after the previous disputes of 2005. But the awful truth, at least till that objective is attained, is that Russia remains a dominant supplier of its gas supplies, upwards of 25 percent. Individual countries also have varying rates of dependency. Gazprom supplies a staggering three quarters of Poland’s gas supplies.
No one quite knows who is responsible for starting this family spat. Accusations have been traded between Kiev and Moscow. The Ukrainian gas giant Naftogaz took aim at its Russian counterpart, Gazprom on Wednesday, claiming that it had stopped transshipments that morning. “Gazprom has in fact cut volumes of transit gas to European customers. The Russian company has therefore placed under threat the delivery of gas to European countries.”
In Berlin, Aleksandr I. Medvedev, the deputy chief executive of Gazprom, begged to differ. It was the Ukrainians who had closed a fourth pipeline. The Kremlin has been none to subtle about where it thinks the gas is going: the Ukraine, it argues, is pilfering supplies.
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Both countries, in the final result, must take some measure of blame for this petrostate squabbles. Gazprom fired the first shot (as it usually does) when it sought to raise the price for gas paid from $US450 per 1,000 cubic metres from a significantly lower $US179.50 in 2008. The Ukrainians considered this rise unacceptably steep, just as it did in 2005. Their dispute is now playing out on a geopolitical centre stage which has sent EU officials scurrying for the diplomatic table.
With falling energy prices, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his henchmen have not softened. If anything, a sense of urgency has developed within the Kremlin. The global economic crisis has threatened to erode the commercial gains that have guaranteed his success at home. Such a bellicose measure against the Ukraine is not merely designed to increase returns but sow the seeds of panic.
This should come as little surprise to keen observers of Russian politics. Putin has dedicated much of his political career to restoring Russian primacy on the back of its energy supplies. His dissertation defense as a Candidate of Sciences at the St. Petersburg Mining Institute in the summer of 1997 focused heavily on the strategic dimension of natural resources. Whether that thesis was derived from other sources (suggestions of plagiarism have circulated) and outside assistance is beside the point: he has followed it to the letter.
Panic is not far off. General Winter, that fiendish, climatic creature that rears its head during the European new year, has moved inexorably across the continent. As it happens, the Czech Republic, Austria, Romania and Slovakia found themselves without Russian gas supplies on Wednesday morning. Shortages were already being felt on Tuesday as far as Paris. The crisis demonstrates yet again the curse of energy dependency, and dependency on the type of petrostate that Russia is.
Binoy Kampmark was Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.