January 10, 2009 | Commentary on Energy and Environment, Democracy and Human Rights

It's a Real Cold War

Russia's decision to cut off natural-gas shipments to Ukraine - and essentially 13 other European states that receive gas via its pipelines - is a lot more than a business decision based on failed year-end contract negotiations.

A lot more.

Sure, the Russian state-owned natural-gas company, Gazprom, is cranky about supposedly not getting paid for past natural-gas deliveries to Ukraine as well as the below-market prices Ukraine pays. That's why Gazprom's been trying to renegotiate with Ukraine's natural-gas firm, Naftogaz.

But cutting off gas in the dead of winter - especially with teeth-chattering, sub-zero temps in parts of Europe recently - is pretty harsh. (Happy New Year to you, too, comrade.)

In fact, Moscow is likely using the cover of a seemingly straight-forward business dispute to do some good ol' fashioned arm-twisting of its Ukrainian and European neighbors.

First, the Kremlin is unhappy with how things have gone politically in Kiev since the 2004 Orange Revolution, when a pro-West ticket won the presidency over Moscow's man. (In fact, Moscow's widely suspected of having had a hand in poisoning the pro-West candidate and current president , Viktor Yushchenko, with the dioxins that nearly killed him during the campaign.)

Cutting off gas in the depths of winter is a warning to Kiev - now in the midst of a financial crisis and facing elections next year - reminding it that Moscow can still call some shots there.

That is, it's a kinder, gentler version of Moscow's invasion of Georgia last year - sending a signal by walloping Kiev with an energy two-by-four. Message: Think twice about joining NATO - a red line that the Kremlin has been growling about, and may well be willing to go to the mat over.

Russia also wants Ukraine to knuckle under on extending the lease for Russia's Black Sea Fleet base in Crimea beyond the agreement's 2017 expiration. (Kiev said it won't be renewing the pact.)

The cut-off is also a shot across Europe's bow. It gets nearly 40 percent of its natural gas (and one-third of its oil) from Russia - and it's clear: Moscow is in no mood to be messed with.

Russia is displeased with Europe about its support for a planned US missile-defense system in Eastern Europe, for Kosovo's independence from Moscow's ally Serbia last spring and for Georgia during Russia's invasion last summer - to name just a few matters.

At the very least, Russia might hope Europe will use tools such as potential European Union membership and aid to pressure Ukraine to pay greater heed to Moscow.

Yet the cutoff costs the Kremlin, too - it's losing sales during peak gas-selling season. No help while Moscow navigates its own financial crisis. So emergency negotiations will likely lead to a resolution in the days to come, albeit with Moscow's tough message sent - and received.

This is the third time in three years Russia has cut deliveries to Ukraine. The impact on European energy supplies has counseled Russia's customers on the perils of protesting objectionable Kremlin policies. Indeed, some European capitals have plainly muted their criticisms of Moscow to avoid experiencing the wrath of its energy caprice.

No doubt: Russia will continue to use energy as a weapon - indeed, it has replaced the Red Army as the prime source of Russian power. It's high time Europe diversifies its energy sources, casting off the yoke of its dogged reliance on Russian oil and gas.

Peter Brookes is senior fellow for National Security Affairs in the Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First Appeared in the New York Post