To some people the decision by Russia last week to cut off natural gas to Ukraine for what ended up being 48 hours was simply mysterious. To others it was essentially a commercial transaction, with Russia (or its 51-percent state-owned natural gas monopoly) simply getting more money from the Ukraine. Still others saw Russia shooting itself in the foot, raising questions in Europe about its reliability as an energy supplier.
It seems more likely that Russia was shrewdly and purposely raising questions about whether Europe could depend on Russia for natural gas, not for economic or commercial reasons, but for post-imperial geopolitical reasons. Hang on, geopolitics can be convoluted.
Russia, even before the Soviets, has traditionally depended on Ukraine being within its sphere of influence as a buffer against possible invasion from the west. Nobody in Europe is poised to invade Russia, and the prospect seems extremely remote. But Russians tend to take even remote foreign threats more seriously than might be warranted. In addition, almost all the infrastructure connecting Russia to Western and central Europe goes through Ukraine.
In 2004, Russia was so eager to have its preferred candidate win the Ukrainian election that it supplied natural gas to Ukraine at $50 per 1,000 cubic meters; the price for Europeans is $230. It didn’t work. After a disputed election the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko became president. Ukraine began falling out of the Russian orbit.
Pushing the gas price up — after asking $230 the Russians settled for $95 — seemed a natural response. The fact that Ukraine almost certainly siphoned off some gas intended for Europe and created short-term shortages in some European countries was a side effect that was almost certainly intended.
The gas cutoff last week made Russia seem just erratic enough in European eyes to be taken seriously as a power that could do real harm. Russia hopes the Europeans will take its complaints — that U.S. backing for the Orange Revolution has emboldened Ukraine to ignore Russian interests — more seriously. This drives a wedge not only between Europe and Ukraine, but between Europe and the United States.
There’s not much the United States can do about the new situation. The likely substitute for Russian natural gas for Europe is Iran. The United States hardly wants the Europeans to turn in that direction.
None of this makes Russia likely to regain superpower status soon or to pose a real threat to the United States. But it shows the Russian government is capable of a shrewd maneuver to protect what it sees as its regional interests.