Russian gas post-mortem: Was it Princess Leia vs. Darth Vader?

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoschenko (l.) and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speak after the signing ceremony for a 10-year gas supply deal on Monday.

Although Ukraine and Russia apparently reached a deal to end the natural-gas impasse Sunday, impatient leaders across Europe say they still haven’t been told precisely when the pipeline flows will be restored.

Previous agreements to end the two week-long shutoff have fallen apart. This might explain why every twist and turn of the latest iteration has been followed so closely, with news agencies issuing dispatches Monday to confirm that pens had actually touched contract paper.

The low physical pressure in the pipelines stands in contrast to the growing push for both Russia and Ukraine to put an end to the problem. Alexander Gudyma, gas adviser to Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, explained to the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti that the deal was reached by trying "not to humiliate Russia or offend Ukraine."

Assuming gas begins to flow again, attention will return to the political fallout. Will Europe follow through on its promises to diversify its energy sources to avoid another hijacking of the thermostat? Italy, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Britain are now pushing forward with plans to restart old nuclear reactors or build new ones, according to a story in last week's Monitor.

Italy's minister for economic development, Claudio Scajola, said last week, “We must go back to nuclear power if we want to become less dependent on others’ moods."

Mr. Scajola didn’t name names, but much of the blame for the crisis has been placed on the shoulders of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is often described as both a past spymaster (from his time in the KGB), and a modern day puppetmaster, for his ability to hand-pick his successor, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. But what about Mr. Putin’s Ukrainian counterpart?

The apple-cheeked, braid-wearing Prime Minister Yulia Tymoschenko is often compared with Princess Leia, of Star Wars fame. Does this comparison go beyond looks? Would this allow comparisons between Putin and Darth Vader? Probably not in both cases.

According to a 2007 story from the Monitor’s Fred Weir, Ms. Tymoschenko’s actual nickname is “Gas Princess,” which she earned from her days making a fortune as an energy trader in the 1990s. Tymoschenko, according to the story, entered politics in the late 1990s and cast herself as a staunch liberal reformer, corruption fighter, and Ukrainian patriot.

"Tymoshenko constantly demands full and total power," says Viktor Nebozhenko, director of Ukrainian Barometer, an independent Kiev think tank, and a former member of Tymoshenko's campaign team. "She has a high level of personal charisma, but she also tends to be a demagogue. She can't make compromises, she can't manage a partnership. Her personality is too strong."

Tymoschenko might be more tycoon than Star Wars heroine. Russia, meanwhile, could have a tough time shedding its image as the Evil Empire in this whole dispute, according to the Russian newspaper, Moskovsky Komsomolets, which states that Russia’s role in the dispute has been pre-ordained:

"No matter what turn the Russia-Ukraine gas conflict takes, the West will always act in accordance with its friend-foe system, where Russia will always be a foe. To the West, Ukraine is a country of the 'victorious orange revolution,' while Russia is 'the cradle of Putin's authoritarianism.' Like almost all EU countries, Ukraine is an energy consumer, while Russia is a member of the rival "suppliers club."

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