Russia, Ukraine near gas deal - but what about next time?

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Is the Big Chill over?

Nearly a week after Russia shut off gas to Ukraine on Jan. 7, affecting supply to at least 20 European Union countries, the Kiev and the Kremlin appear close to resuming regular business.

Top Russian officials including Gazprom head Alexei Miller are in Brussels today to meet with EU energy ministers and sign a deal that will include international monitors in Ukraine.

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But given the on-again, off-again nature of this spigot spat, who knows?

Third year in a row

All those shivering in Bulgaria, Poland, and the rest of Eastern Europe will breathe a sigh of relief once a deal is struck. But is the problem permanently solved? As the Monitor's Moscow correspondent Fred Weir pointed out in an audio report last week, this is getting to be an annual New Year’s event with shutoffs in 2007 and 2006. (Notice there are never any gas disruptions in the muggy summer months.)

Europe needs gas, and it gets about a quarter of its total supply from Russia – 80 percent of which comes through Ukraine. And Ukraine happens to be one of two states on Russia’s border that are pushing hard to join NATO, the Western military alliance. (The other state is Georgia, whose tensions with Russia erupted into a full-blown, if short-lived war this summer.)

Behind the spat: East-West tensions?

Now, depending on whom you talk to, Ukraine’s Westward leaning ambition may have nothing to do with why Russia cut gas supplies this year. As Konstantin Zatullin, the deputy chair of the Russian State Duma's commission on the Commonwealth of Independent States, told Fred, ‘Russia had no choice but to cut off their gas. Is there any place in the world where people receive energy supplies free of charge?’

Others, however, make a direct link between the two. According to Dmitri Furman, an expert with the Institute of European Studies in Moscow, “Gas is just one manifestation of our colossal irritation with Ukraine ... for having chosen to build a different political system and join the West.”

Part of Russia’s plan may be to discredit Ukraine as a viable political partner, so that Europe will be more inclined to strengthen ties with Russia and deny Ukraine NATO membership. "Europe should see that there's no alternative to working with Russia," Vyacheslav Igrunov, director of the independent Institute of Political and Humanitarian Studies in Moscow, told the Monitor last week.

Alternative energy routes

Now, there are alternative ways for Russia to get its gas to Europe without dealing with pesky ex-Soviet countries on its borders. The Nord Stream pipeline would link Russia and the EU via the Baltic Sea. Then the Blue Stream pipeline, already partially built, goes through the Black Sea with eventual plans to bring gas up through Eastern Europe.

Such plans are yet another thorn in the side for European efforts under way to build a pipeline that would lessen dependence on Russian energy supplies. Called Nabucco (not to be confused with the opera), it is an $8 billion project to bring gas from Central Asia to Austria via Turkey. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2010.

Perhaps those plans will make it necessary to stage this annual gas dispute. We’ll see.

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