John Lichfield: Forget the gas – Europe needs to get tough with Russia

World Focus: Russia
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The Independent Online

The Russian government may be brutal and incompetent domestically, but it has learnt to play the game of European politics with subtlety and skill. Not that the western Europeans are particularly hard to play against. They can be relied upon to score own goals.

France yesterday became the latest EU country to be drawn into Moscow's plans to build two new pipelines, avoiding Ukraine and Poland, which will make western European cooking stoves and central heating boilers dependent on Russian gas for decades to come. During Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's two-day visit to Paris, the French electricity giant EDF signed a contract to help the Russian state enterprise Gazprom to build the new "South Stream" pipeline under the Black Sea to Greece, Serbia, Hungary and western Europe.

Italy is already involved in that project. Germany is helping with Russia's North Stream pipeline under the Baltic, which is expected shortly to attract investment from another French energy giant, GDF-Suez. Officially, all EU governments are keen on the rival Nabucco pipeline, linking Europe directly to the gasfields of the former Soviet republics in central Asia, but it has barely advanced.

President Nicolas Sarkozy came to power two and a half years ago promising to take a tougher line with Russia than his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who had shamelessly sucked up to Vladimir Putin. Mr Sarkozy pledged to take account of the "authoritarian drift" in Moscow and Russian "crimes" in Chechnya. As a result, the state-run press in Moscow greeted Mr Sarkozy's election with insults and dismay. He was, Izvestia said, the "son of a Hungarian aristocrat and the grandson of a Salonikan Jew", under the influence of forces which "pathologically detested" Russia.

Half way thought his mandate, Mr Sarkozy – like Mr Chirac, Gerhard Schröder and Silvio Berlusconi before him – appears to have fallen under Mr Putin' spell. Not only is France helping with the two Gazprom pipeline projects (in return for guarantees of future Russian gas supplies) it is also likely to become the first Western government to sell a large piece of defence hardware to post-Communist Moscow.

The hi-tech French navy helicopter ship Mistral is currently moored in St Petersburg harbour on a "courtesy" visit, flaunting its €500m (£450m) charms to the Russian navy. Moscow wants to rebuild the once-powerful Soviet navy and is keen to have a "Mistralski" of its own. Details of a likely deal were discussed on the margins of Mr Putin's successful, two-day business trip to Paris, which ended last night.

The Russian former oil oligarch, Mikhail Kodorkovski, imprisoned four years ago before his company was swallowed into state-run Gazprom, gave a written interview to Le Monde this week. He warned Western countries they should not regard the crushing of legal and human rights in Russia – including the regular imprisonment and murder of opponents of the regime – as "peripheral problems".

He said: "It is very important that the international community should regard events in Russia as a problem for all of us."