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Crisis chills Europe's ties to Russia

A cold, divided, and annoyed Europe struggles to find a way to prevent Russia from turning down the heat. Eastern Europe, meanwhile, continues to shiver.

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Europe is not able to speak with one powerful voice because Russia has negotiated individual deals that favor some of the larger countries, says Jean Quatremer, who runs a French blog on EU policy out of Brussels. "France, Italy, and Germany have privileged ties with Moscow, with no European coordination, and they do not intend to put those ties in jeopardy."

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Nonetheless, the past month's financial and energy crises have forced Europe together, Mr. Quatremer says. "Wall Street and Vladimir Putin ... have done much for the project of greater European unity and construction."

Russia is demanding that Ukraine pay market prices for the gas and be a more responsible steward of the pipeline that carries Russian gas to the West. Last year Ukraine paid an average $179 per thousand cubic meters of gas, or less than half the rate paid by European consumers. When Kiev balked at a price hike for 2009, Gazprom cut Ukraine's share from the pipeline. The Ukrainians claim that Russian tinkering with the gas pressure caused the shortages; Moscow retorts that Ukraine is brazenly "stealing" gas.

In an official statement this week, Gazprom asked Europeans for understanding. "Gazprom realizes its responsibility for the strict execution of the gas-supply contract to its European partners, and is doing its best to minimize the negative consequences of Ukraine's illegal actions," it said. "By escalating the energy crisis, Ukraine is playing against itself."

Russian experts argue that Ukraine's actions should encourage Europeans to recognize that Kiev is not a suitable partner, whether it's a question of joining NATO or simply meeting commercial requirements. "In this tense situation – not only because of gas – Europe should see that there's no alternative to working with Russia, either now or in the near future," says Vyacheslav Igrunov, director of the independent Institute of Political and Humanitarian Studies in Moscow.

But some experts warn that an increasingly assertive Russia is generating crises with the aim of bringing independence-minded former Soviet states like Ukraine to heel. In Georgia last summer, Moscow used military methods to humiliate a rambunctious neighbor, says Tammy Lynch, an analyst with Boston University's Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology, and Policy. Summarily cutting off gas supplies through Ukraine is a similar, politically motivated tactic, she argues.

"If Russia can achieve its goals by turning off Europe's gas, even in the face of valid contracts, it will know that this type of behavior can be repeated in other disputes. Russia learned from Europe's lack of response to its actions in Georgia, and it will take a similar lesson away from this dispute."

• Staff writer Robert Marquand contributed from Paris and Vesselin Dimitrov from Bulgaria.

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