$1,000 or the Cat Gets It
Published: July 24, 2009 (Issue # 1494)
The world now takes Russia seriously. When Russia first declared in 2005 that it had an energy weapon, Europe was incredulous. Since then, Russia has wielded that energy weapon more than once. Now Europe finally understands that Russia views its gas resources as a weapon, not a commodity. Europe also understands that it has only to go elsewhere for its gas in order to neutralize the effects of the weapon.
In January, the Kremlin waged a “gas war” with Ukraine. Few observers believed that Russia would allow itself to become embroiled in a dispute that could damage its reputation as a reliable supplier. But Russia opted to shut off supplies to Ukraine, thereby causing shortages for the end consumer — Europe. And Moscow was prepared to take the same step again in May and June. By that point, both Europe and the International Monetary Fund took Russia’s words seriously enough to start talks about offering financial assistance to Ukraine. Thus, the Kremlin’s threats are helping Ukraine obtain money it would never have received otherwise.
The same is true regarding Georgia. For many years, Kremlin attempts to make trouble for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili remained outside the spotlight of the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. After the Russia-Georgia war last August, however, the Kremlin’s stance on Georgia has taken center stage. No sooner did Russia recently suggest that Georgia was saber-rattling than the United States dispatched its destroyer to the waters off Batumi, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden headed to Tbilisi and, according to my sources, President Barack Obama obtained assurances from Russian leaders during his recent Moscow summit that no new war against Georgia would be forthcoming.
In short, nobody believed the Kremlin before. Now they do. And now it turns out that the Kremlin’s policies are not those of a rogue state but of a hooligan state. It is as if a neighbor were to say, “Listen up! You don’t show me the proper respect. Give me $1,000 or I’ll strangle your cat, poison your dog and burn down your house!” For a long time, nobody believed the threats and continued to think that the neighbor was a good guy. But then the cat was strangled and the dog was poisoned. Yet the attacks didn’t elicit the desired respect or the money — they just prompted a call to the police.
In this sense, the next two months are critical for Russia’s future. During this period, Moscow, like the belligerent neighbor, must decide whether to carry out its threat and burn down Tbilisi’s house under the watchful eye of the police or to keep quiet and behave itself.
Of course, Moscow could start a war with Georgia, offering the excuse that Saakashvili attacked first. It could again cut off gas supplies to Ukraine over some trivial complaint or buy up gas supplies for the Nabucco pipeline at three times their market value, just to throw a monkey wrench in Europe’s plans to bypass Russian gas. The problem with such an approach is that nobody would believe that Georgia attacked itself, that Ukraine shut off its own gas supplies or that Moscow’s attempts to make Europe more dependent on Russian gas are evidence of the Kremlin’s peaceful intentions. Didn’t the Kremlin demonstrate that gas is a weapon? Well, now the West believes Russia.
But to pursue that course would be to turn Russia from a hooligan state into a true rogue state. And do you know what they do with the leaders of rogue states? They freeze the assets in their Swiss bank accounts.
Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.