Amid all the New Year's talk of Putin's chilly heart, relax. The same types who are apt to criticize France for styling itself as far more powerful than it really is bristle when Russia flexes the occasional muscle to show it can still be taken seriously. As former great powers, Russia's weaknesses are more pronounced than those of France, but its strengths are sharper and more provocative: the Kremlin can cause a stir without resort to its veto power at the U.N. Security Council. So arms sales to Syria and nuclear partnership with Iran have been followed with next-generation missile testing and now the cutoff of gas supplies to Ukraine, which significantly impacts gas consumption across Europe. This track record, showing what some might style intransigence, is tempered by Russia's latest announcement -- that "it would restore most of the natural gas that it withheld" from European markets. But the point has been made -- when it comes to energy, Russia can do what it wants, when it wants.
Should U.S. policymakers be concerned?
Not beyond the level already expressed at State. "Such an abrupt step," spokesman Sean McCormack observed, "creates insecurity in the energy sector in the region and raises serious questions about the use of energy to exert political pressure." But questions raised are a far-off cry from statements made. And the declarations coming out of Europe express concern controlled by confidence: in Italy ("There's no reason to be alarmed," Eni CEO Scaroni today told Sky Television. "There are abundant supplies"), Britain ("no big supply deals with Gazprom"), Germany ("well-prepared" for Ukrainian shutoff), Belgium ("we don't import Russian gas"), and France -- where Le Monde took offense but Industry Minister Francois Loos took a dismissive tone.
THE TWISTING OF THE TAPS, however, isn't all style and no substance. It's part of a long attempt by Moscow to more normalize economic power along its European frontier. Gazprom is close to clinching a deal with Moldova. In 2002 and 2003, Russia fought for an end to cut-rate gas for Belarus -- $28 to $50 for Ukraine and over $100 for European customers. And international economists agree that market prices should determine the cost of Russian gas for all its buyers. British Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks has declared, "It's not very helpful, I don't think, for the UK to take a view on the rights or wrongs of this." The Washington Post quotes Vadym Karasiov, director of the Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev, as admitting that in 2005, "this was Ukraine's problem." He adds that since "Russia has internationalized the dispute" it is "hurting its own image," and suggests that "[t]ime is working for Ukraine now."
But responsibility is too evenly split between Russia and Ukraine, and the crisis too attenuated. Europe is more troubled by the frank expression of Russian economic power than it is truly affected. And Russia, in agreeing to turn the taps back up for Europe's benefit, demonstrates just how little it stands to gain from creating market instability beyond Kiev. Since the West, particularly in the wake of the Orange Revolution, cannot abide a failing Ukraine, the EU will play a proactive role in working to make up the balance in payments. Yushchenko has rejected loans before, characterizing them as "alms" -- but in that case it was Putin, not Europe, making the offer. Now, perhaps, a Western bailout package would make up an offer he can't refuse.
It's an excessively weak Ukraine, then -- not an overly assertive Russia -- that motivates real concern. Judging strength and weakness can't be done in a vacuum, of course -- there are some instances in which Russian assertiveness makes Ukraine weak, and by design. This is, to an extent, one of those instances -- but the appropriate reaction is to bolster Kiev, not seek out conflict with Moscow.
RUSSIA IS ENTERING INTO a period of tremendous usefulness to the West -- particularly America. The elements of true multipolarity are more present in the Russian case than, for example, the French: there is nothing Paris can do or not do to affect the trajectory of Iranian nuclear politics, for example, whereas Russia's carrots and sticks can have a real effect. In fact, Russia's assertive behavior on gas should be viewed in light of the key role Moscow is playing in the brewing Iranian crisis. We are headed toward a final rejection of the Russian enrichment option by Tehran, and the collapse of Russian opposition to punishment by the Security Council. Since China will not stand alone, among great powers, in solidarity with Iran, Russia is the critical nation in the creation of a united front -- tremendously helpful for the legitimacy of any successful action against Tehran, be it nonmilitary or military.
Therefore it's attractive for Russia to flex its muscles independently on its European flank, helping Europe out of the same false crisis it created, before joining in with the EU and the U.S. on the real crisis over Iran. The old wariness over unilateral Russian demonstrations of capricious power is difficult for some to modulate. But the time has come to recognize that Russia and the U.S. are natural partners -- each with needs the other can fulfill. In a world where the old realist conceptualization of politics has sometimes seemed to lose much of its force, dealing constructively with Russia brings those traditional forms to the fore.
Like it or not, thwarting Iran is more important than ensuring a vibrant NGO community in Russia. Transitioning to Russian oil -- away from Middle Eastern oil -- is a worthy goal that, as part of a comprehensive policy, can help bring Russia into the Western orbit where it belongs. Permitting the risk of a Russian freezeout of Europe may be less than ideal, but when Russia is frozen out of Europe it has proven itself as unmanageable politically as it is demanding. In isolation or in antagonistic alignment, an anti-Western Russia for the 21st century would be a geostrategic disaster all on its own -- without taking into the account the extent to which Russia is a natural ally against every enemy we are likely to face in the future. As an unaffected interested party, the U.S. should work with Europe to bring Ukrainian gas payments into accord with market rates, turning with all due speed to the channeling of Russia's energies into the other end of the bargain -- a decisive array of power against an Iran problem for which we are rapidly running out of viable options.
James G. Poulos is a writer and attorney living in Washington, D.C. His commentaries are found at Postmodern Conservative.