Leading article: The stench of blackmail

Monday 11 February 2008 01:00 GMT

There is a depressing sense of déjà vu about the latest energy dispute between Russia and Ukraine, again featuring the Kremlin threatening to turn the gas off, "more in sorrow than in anger".

Again, we see the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, insisting politics plays no part in this row and maintaining if Ukraine paid its bills, Russia would not be threatening dire measures.

Perhaps. Of course there is a financial aspect to the Ukrainian struggle with Gazprom, and it's hardly surprising Moscow should seek to maximise its income from its abundant energy resources.

But Russia has only itself to blame if the world looks at Mr Putin's explanations with scepticism. It was clear the last time Gazprom threatened to make Ukraine freeze in January 2006 that the Kremlin was determined to punish the electors of a former Soviet republic over which Russia still claims an imperial influence. Their misdemeanour lay in having had the temerity to elect a pro-western Orange government in direct contravention to Mr Putin's advice.

It is no surprise that Europeans and Ukrainians wonder whether, if the gas goes off once more this week in Kiev, it will be at least in part because Ukraine is pressing ahead with plans to join Nato, defying Moscow's views.

It would be a fine example of the Kremlin's black humour if the flames of Ukrainian cookers flickered and died just as their President, Victor Yushchenko, touched down in Moscow for what everyone predicts will be a difficult visit.

We can only look on and hope for the best, trusting in Kremlin assurances that Western European customers will not suffer for Ukraine's behaviour. The sad fact is that Europe has allowed itself to sleepwalk into an ever-growing dependence on Russia for its energy and that this relationship now circumscribes our ability to influence, let alone criticise, the Kremlin.

Earlier plans in the 1990s to diversify European oil and gas supplies from Azerbaijan were foolishly laid aside while Russia busily strained very muscle to increase its monopolistic position. Divide and rule have been Russia's watchwords, which is one reason why the Nord Stream gas pipeline is being built to Germany, bypassing a protesting Poland. The Kremlin has done well in striking new energy deals in the Balkans this year, too, undercutting any wider EU strategy. Only last month, it bought up the whole of Serbia's state petrol industry, NIS.

The political ramifications of Europe's economic dependence on Russian oil and gas are obvious: timidity in the face of Russian blackmail over Kosovo, passivity in the face of its often outrageous threats towards the Baltic states. When it comes to Ukraine, we can probably assume the two sides will somehow sort it out. But there is little we can do about it.

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