Russia-Ukraine row: up close and personal
Could it be that the gas dispute between Moscow and Kiev broke out because Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin felt personally slighted by his Ukrainian opposite number, Yulia Tymoshenko?
It may seem far-fetched that two countries would risk leaving half of Europe without gas over something so apparently petty. But a look at the sequence of events that led up to this crisis suggests there just might be something in it.
Rewind back to Oct. 2, and Tymoshenko is meeting Putin at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow. It is a lodge in forested parkland where, as a rule, he only invites people on whom he wants to make a good impression.
The portents were not good. Tymoshenko, often called the “Gas Princess” for the gas business she used to run in eastern Ukraine, has been a driving force behind Kiev’s push to integrate with the West and once wrote an article in a U.S. journal saying Russia had “imperial designs” on its neighbours.
Yet Putin and Tymoshenko seemed to hit it off. The Ukrainian Prime Minister, dressed in a designer outfit and looking much younger than her 47 years (she has since turned 48), radiated charm as she sat opposite her Russian colleague. Putin, the gruff former KGB spy, smiled and cracked jokes at a press briefing with Tymoshenko afterwards. And later that same evening, Putin took Tymoshenko to Gorki, where his boss Dmitry Medvedev has his own out-of-town residence, and they talked late into the night.
Most importantly, the visit ended with a deal on gas: Russia said it would not charge Ukraine market prices for gas straight away, and they agreed a memorandum which would serve as the basis for a new gas contract for 2009.
Now fast forward to December last year and – at least from the Russian perspective – Tymoshenko was going back on her word. The Russian theory goes that Tymoshenko, watching world prices for oil plummet and knowing that gas prices would eventually follow suit, decided that Ukraine should pay less for its gas than she had agreed back in October at Novo-Ogaryovo.
It should be noted that neither side ever made public what was agreed in October so it is impossible to judge if anyone has welched on the deal, and in fact Ukraine says it is Russia that is now failing to honour that agreement.
Either way, the indications from Russian officials are that Putin felt Tymoshenko had betrayed him, and was angry about it. Angry enough to start a gas war? It was probably not the only reason. It is impossible to dismiss the fact that there is a business dispute at play here. And then there is Russia’s well-known dislike for Ukraine’s pro-Western policies. But the theory is at least worth adding to the mix. We already know Putin is a man who takes politics personally. He did, after all, threaten to hang Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili up by his genitals.