Is the “new Cold War” just a load of gas?

The unsolved death of Alexander Litvinenko, the war in Georgia, Russia’s extraordinary economic boom, and now the gas crisis in Ukraine – the great bear has loomed large over the last 12 months. Indeed, journalists have had a field day bandying about notions such as a “new Cold War.” Are such tags just irresponsible sensationalism, or should the West really be bracing itself for a fundamental change in policy?

For:How many times have we seen this pattern: there is an abrupt break in gas supplies from Russia which affects Eastern and Central European countries, followed by disbelief and outrage in most of Europe’s capitals. The question of who’s to blame for the crisis seems to be obvious then. Russia. Its imperial policy of energy blackmail is said to be responsible for everything. So when the newest crisis began in early January, we heard the same drumbeat: the evil empire strikes again, delivering a brutally bleak midwinter. How convenient and yet how self-deceiving this explanation is!

First of all, it is hard to understand where this ubiquitous surprise comes from. After all, the gas wars between Russia and Ukraine (or some other Eastern European countries) have become a steady feature of the European landscape. As Anne Applebaum wrote recently in The Washington Post, “Like every continent, Europe has its rituals. In the spring, the storks return to the Low Countries from their winter nests in Africa. In the autumn, the French return to Paris from their beaches in the south. And in the winter, the Russians threaten to cut off the natural gas supplies to Ukraine.” Then shouldn’t the West get accustomed to this winter tradition?

Well, this raises the second problem with the so-called Russian dilemma. It is, in fact, a question of the Western approach, particularly the European Union’s response to these cuts of energy supplies. If there is a classic trait in Brussels-style policy-making, it would have to be the self-pitying, finger-pointing and fruitless style of dealing with these energy crises that the European Union has shown for years. Russia appears to be an easy target to blame for some European states. It has a long history of bullying smaller and weaker countries, especially the former Soviet satellites that have been referred to in Moscow as a “near abroad.” Russia, according to this stereotype, is also viewed as a barbarian country where rules of logic simply do not apply.

This explanation ? while great for shifting responsibility away from Brussels and towards Russia ? does not push the issue of energy supplies any further. Not only does it vilify Moscow (which does not help in achieving consensus), it deflects attention from the most important truth: that the EU’s common energy policy is a phantom. Consider for example Germany’s double standards with its interest in building the Nord Stream pipeline. The Ukrainian role in the last dispute might be worth checking as well. Is it really so evident that Kiev is just an innocent bystander hit by the ruthless energy superpower?

Europeans, instead of blaming themselves, again have trouble understanding that Gazprom is in reality just another of Russia’s foreign policy tools. It is not a question of being right or wrong, it is a question of an economic and political model exercised in the Russian Federation. Is liberal democracy and a European type of economy the only one allowed in the world? Last time I checked, by all means no. But if some European Union states, and that includes Poland, do not wish to do business with Russia and buy gas elsewhere, they are free to do so. Russia, on the other hand, is not an evil empire that feeds on other countries’ misery. Moscow wishes to do business and use its strategic natural resources. Trading gas for money is after all a two way street.

But this in turn would require that the EU’s policy of half-measures be changed into one, single-minded energy policy. So perhaps it’s really time to start implementing a new energy security policy for the EU and stop whining. As Dimitri K. Simes pointed out on The National Interest webpage, the blame for the recent conflict is shared by all actors: “Neither Ukraine, Russia, the EU or even the United States come out with their hands clean or their relationships intact.” If this crisis has not taught Brussels a lesson, I guess nothing will.

Against:It all happened on a beautiful January morning. As a result of a crisis between Russia and Ukraine, Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom cut gas supplies to more than half of the EU’s 27 member states, leaving hundreds of thousands in Eastern Europe without gas, and millions more with reduced supplies to homes, offices and factories. For three weeks, Gazprom ignored frantic EU pleas to turn the gas on again, thus damaging the prestige of the Union.

“Western media are painting a completely non-objective picture of ‘Russia Shuts Gas to Europe’,” said Vladimir Putin, Russian Prime Minister. As millions of Europeans continued to endure freezing temperatures and emergency cuts to heating, timid voices in Brussels suggested that Russia cannot be trusted.

Excuse me?

How can you possibly trust a country with no democratic traditions at all, that’s ruled in an authoritarian way by an ex-KGB agent? A country where corruption assumed systemic and institutionalised form, and where state officials have ties to criminal organisations. A country where state-approved history books portray Josef Stalin, one of the most ruthless dictators in history, as a harsh but successful leader. A country where independent media are suppressed, and where people brainwashed by official venomous propaganda agree with Putin’s claims that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. A country where human rights are almost non-existent, almighty police officers are lords of life and death, and where ultra-nationalist stormtroopers prowl the streets of Moscow in a hunt for people of non-Slavic appearance. A country where political murders happen on a regular basis with no reaction from the Kremlin or the Orthodox Church. How can you trust a country which has become, in the precise sense of the word, a fascist state?

Today, Russia is desperately fighting to regain the international respect that it enjoyed in the Soviet Union’s heyday. So should it still be feared as an “Evil Empire,” or is that just a cliché preserved from the times of the Cold War?

Russia may be a colossus on clay legs, waving a sabre while sitting on a wooden rocking horse, but it still holds the gas pistol, which has replaced the nuclear one. This is a clear and present danger to Europe, and no leftist moaning, such as Sting’s “I hope the Russians love their children too,” can change that picture.

So what does the wannabe empire do to gain political leverage these days? It turns off the gas valve. This message is as subtle as Nikita Khruschev’s shoe-banging on the desk during the UN General Assembly in 1960. His memorable declaration “We will bury you” is clearly still alive today, being only slightly changed to “We will freeze you.”

Since the last energy dispute between Russia and Ukraine in 2006, the EU has spent three years talking about producing a coherent energy policy. Nothing has been done so far.

Today, one of Europe’s best hopes for limiting its dependence on Russian gas is the Nabucco pipeline project. The intended route for the Nabucco is from the Caspian Sea to Turkey and on to Europe through Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, bypassing Russia. A strong advocate against this solution is German ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Putin’s best friend and chairman of the shareholders’ committee in one of Gazprom’s sub-companies. His yearly salary of over 1,000,000 Euro is clearly a consolation for being called a political prostitute.

In the long-term, the only positive outcome of the recent crisis may be that the EU’s very impotence will turn into action and stiffen resolve on energy supply security. Otherwise, on another beautiful morning we may wake up again, as we say in Poland, with a hand in the chamber pot. And a very cold one too.

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