Magazine article The Spectator

Pipeline Power

Magazine article The Spectator

Pipeline Power

Article excerpt

How easily we forget! Who, for instance, was the first of the world's major leaders to talk to George W. Bush after 9/11? No, it wasn't Blair. Or the democratically elected leaders of Canada, Australia, France, Germany or Denmark.

It was Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the new President of Russia. He was staying at his villa on the Black Sea when, like the rest of the developed world, he watched the satellite pictures as the Twin Towers came tumbling down. His response was to phone Bush immediately and to tell him that at such a time his Russian government would not just talk about being helpful but would also take action to be supportive. He would personally request the Central Asian governments (and former Soviet satellites) of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to allow the Americans to set up military bases in their territories. Not only that, he would travel himself to Washington and Texas to create a unique photo opportunity: Putin and Bush with jackets off and smiles applied not with Araldite but Velcro.

Now, of course, six years later, the talk is once again of a Cold War, a breakdown of communication between East and West, a miscomprehension, a potential for conflict. Putin is feared by Washington as an exKGB man; a non-believer (in the American way). In return Putin and the Kremlin feel as if their philanthropic intentions after 9/11 have been ruthlessly rebuffed. The Americans want to establish bases not as protective devices, but rather as aggressive spying machines designed to keep an eye on what the Kremlin is up to.

In Dancing with the Russian Bear (Radio Four, Monday nights, and the World Service), Tim Whewell reminded us that, while our esteemed leaders have been fiddling in Afghanistan and Iraq, Putin has been looking for ways to rebuild Russian hegemony -- through Pipeline Power. With prices from the Middle East no longer so attractive, and our own natural gas supplies coming to an end, it's becoming more and more economical to pipe gas and oil for thousands of miles from the extremities of Russia and across the Ukraine to Europe. And guess who's in charge of the state-owned gas company, Gazprom (which now supplies 25 per cent of the European Union's gas requirements)? None other than Dmitry Medvedev, shortly to become Putin's successor as Russian president.

This is a fascinating series, focusing on a vital piece of the geopolitical jigsaw, but it's been somewhat chaotically put together.

There was no sense of narrative structure, or of an unfolding of ideas. …

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