Now that the oil price is back above $60 and the Russian state budget is looking more promising, the Kremlin returned over the weekend to its customary game of bullying the Europeans. The Europeans, divided as usual, are only too ready to be bullied.
The summit between the European Union's current group of rotating leaders, nominally led by the Czechs, took place about as far from Europe as the Russians could devise. The city of Khabarovsk is close to the Chinese border. This served as a useful reminder, from the Kremlin's point of view, that the Chinese may be even hungrier for Russia's oil and gas than the Europeans.
A rational Europe, having suffered Russia's habit of closing the gas pipelines in winter, would by now have been making alternative arrangements. Its governments would have been furiously building nuclear power stations and wind farms, cutting deals with the African oil suppliers and building their own pipelines to import oil and gas from the Caspian basin, whose governments are almost as eager to break out from Russian control of their pipeline.
But the EU is neither united nor decisive. The Germans have cut their own deal, building the North Stream pipeline under the Baltic Sea so that those testy Poles and Ukrainians can freeze in the future while German industry keeps humming on Russian gas. The EU Commission's attempt to build the new Nabucco pipeline from the Caspian through Turkey and the Balkan states keeps stalling for lack of funds and political agreement.
Meanwhile, Russia is forging ahead with agreements for its own South Stream pipeline, which also skirts those pesky Ukrainians and poles, and takes Russian gas via the Black Sea to the Balkans and the eager Italian and other European customers.
Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko announced Friday on the fringes of the summit that Austria and Slovenia are about to sign up for the South Stream gas pipeline, adding cheekily that he now expects the EU to make South Stream one of its 10 "priority projects" in energy policy. That would make the Europeans enablers and financiers of their own dependency.
The Russians then upped the stakes by suggesting that the EU also pay for Ukraine's dependency by helping to settle Ukraine's future gas bills. The key to all this is Russia's angry determination to maintain its own sphere of influence over the old Soviet bloc and to block hesitant EU attempts to forge ties with former Soviet republics like Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan.
President Medvedev, belying his reputation as the Kremlin's more liberal "soft cop" in contrast to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's "hard cop," made it bluntly clear that he mistrusted and resented the EU's new Eastern partnership project to improve relations with six former-Soviet states.
"What we don't want is the Eastern partnership to be turned into a partnership that is against Russia," Medvedev said. "I'll put it succinctly. We tried to convince ourselves (that this project is not dangerous), but in the end we couldn't. What worries us is that in some countries attempts are being made to exploit this structure as a partnership against Russia."
The Russian president added that he certainly will not ratify the Energy Charter Treaty, an EU-backed multilateral agreement on energy investment and transit rules that Moscow first signed in 1994, and which Putin's Kremlin condemned as an unequal agreement that sought to take advantage of Russia's temporary weakness.
Asked if he could reassure Europeans that there would be no future pipeline closures of the kind that kept EU members in Eastern Europe in the freezing dark last winter, Medvedev was almost contemptuous in his refusal.
"Russia has given no assurances and will give none. What for?" the Russian president demanded.
The only pushback from the Europeans came when Britain's Catherine Ashton, the EU trade commissioner, checked Russia by stressing that the EU would not sign any new strategic pact with Moscow until Russia formally joined the World Trade Organization. The catch is that Russia will not be able to fulfill its long-standard ambition of joining the WTO until it lifts controls on Siberian overflights, timber exports and imports of cars, milk and steel products.
"Russia needs to demonstrate it really is keen to move to WTO accession, and part of that is not imposing any new duties," she stressed.
But the Russians did not seem in the least awed, having been presented with new evidence of EU disunity by Czech President Vaclav Klaus. On the eve of the Khabarovsk summit, Klaus gave an interview to Czech daily Lidove noviny, which quoted him saying, "I don't see Russia as a threat but as a big, strong and ambitious country to which we must certainly pay more attention than to the likes of Estonia and Lithuania."
Estonia and Lithuania are fellow members of the EU and NATO. Estonia called in the Czech ambassador to demand an explanation. So much for European solidarity. Of course, it might be easier if the oil price drops back down to $35 a barrel.
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