Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

An Explosive Gas Deal

By Aussiegirl

Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post, takes a look at the Russia/Ukraine gas crisis and draws some conclusions regarding the prospects for democracy in Eastern Europe.

My own assessment of this deal is that it is probably the best that Yushchenko could manage given the circumstances. My understanding is that Ukraine still maintains control over the pipelines that run through its territory. It was one of Putin's objectives to seize control of these pipelines as he did in a similar gas dispute involving neighboring Byelorus. This is an important asset that Yushchenko managed to maintain in these nearly impossible negotiations.

There is no question that the U.S. has divided loyalties regarding Ukraine and Russia -- needing Putin's assistance in the matter of the nuclearization of Iran and in the war on terror in general on the one hand, but desirous of promoting democracy according to Bush's stated policy on the other.

Sadly, since the aftermath of the Orange Revolution when Washington and Bush basked in the reflected glow of a democratized Ukraine, Yushchnko and Ukraine have received precious little concrete and material support from either the United States, or from the EU countries.

Ukraine cannot go it alone against the Russian bear. The west is going to have to make up its mind what is more important to its long-term strategic goals -- a western leaning Ukraine, democratized and free, or a Ukraine swallowed up again by the Russian empire. Diplomacy is never an easy balancing act, but I fear that Condi Rice's schooling as a pro-Russia Soviet expert places her squarely in the Putin camp, while poor Ukraine once again gets the cold shoulder and is essentially told to sink or swim.

Condi Rice is Brent Scowcroft's protegee, the same Scowcroft who advised Bush 41 to tell the Ukrainians not to indulge in "suicidal nationalism" when they desired to declare their independence from the Soviet Union and from Moscow. At the time, his speech, delivered in Kyiv on the eve of the independence vote, so infuriated Ukrainians that it has forever been dubbed his "Chicken Kiev" speech.

Condi has always described herself as a "Russianist", and as such may not be able to see clearly that something has gone seriously amiss in Russia.

As Diehl puts it, in its own way, the gas deal between Russia and Ukraine may in its own way be as significant as the Palestinian vote when it comes to promoting democracy in a critical part of the world.

An Explosive Gas Deal

After a turbulent year of free politics, Ukraine has another crucial election, for a newly empowered parliament, scheduled for March 26. This time Putin has avoided open intervention in the campaign. Instead he triggered the gas crisis and presented his Ukrainian enemies with a choice: Swallow a mammoth midwinter price increase for the fuel Ukrainians use to heat their homes, just weeks before the election, or hand Russia a commanding long-term stake in Ukrainian energy infrastructure -- and the ability to trigger a gas supply crisis at any time. Yushchenko and Yekhanurov chose the second option, while also agreeing to divert some of the huge profits to undisclosed beneficiaries. When confronted by U.S. officials, they claimed that they had no choice; until now they have denied knowing who owns the shell company through which Ukraine will channel billions of dollars.

How to save democracy in Ukraine, and the chance it will someday spread back to Russia? As in the Middle East, the Bush administration faces some difficult choices. If pro-Western parties lead the next government -- something that is far from certain -- President Bush could press them to scrap the gas deal as a condition for taking the first step toward membership in NATO, a "membership action plan." But that would probably lead to a new face-off between Ukraine and Putin, in which Kiev would require U.S. and European support -- at a moment when those same allies are pleading for the Kremlin's help with the Palestinians and Iran.

Or the administration could decide to sidestep Putin's gas-fired imperialism, leaving a complicated issue to its present obscurity. The Ukrainians might eventually find a way to free themselves from Russia's chokehold. But they also might allow one of the signal democratic breakthroughs of the Bush years to suffer a crippling reverse.


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