No More Mr. Nice Guy; Vladimir Putin Slaps Down Hapless Belarus. but Eventually the Hard-Fisted Russian President Will Find That the Name of This Game Is Blowback

Newsweek International, January 22, 2007 | Go to article overview

No More Mr. Nice Guy; Vladimir Putin Slaps Down Hapless Belarus. but Eventually the Hard-Fisted Russian President Will Find That the Name of This Game Is Blowback


Byline: Owen Matthews (With Stephen Glain in Washington)

From the way Aleksandr Lukashenka was talking, you'd think war had just broken out. "We will not surrender our country to anyone who wants to tear it to pieces!" railed Belarus's president after Russia stopped oil exports to Belarus--and European customers farther down the line--in a row over tariffs and energy prices. "We may have to go down into the bunkers, but we will not surrender!"

Actually, he waved the white flag just a couple of days later. What choice did he have? No one knows exactly what was said in a tense phone conversation between Vladimir Putin and Lukashenka, but it was clear that Putin was playing for keeps. The Kremlin's key threat: to slap tariffs on Belarussian goods exported to Russia. Since well above half of Belarus's trade is with its larger neighbor--and onetime best geopolitical friend--that would have destroyed the country's economy.

The terms of surrender were no less brutal. They included a twofold increase in the price of gas, the sell-off of Belarus's gas-pipeline network to Russia's Gazprom and a scrapping of transit tariffs for Russian oil passing through the Druzhba pipeline en route to Europe. For cash-strapped Belarus, isolated politically and economically from the rest of Europe, supplies of cheap Russian energy were an economic lifeline; their loss is a body blow to the nation's already precarious health. The lesson wasn't lost on other neighbors of Russia. If this is how Russia treats its closest friends, what can its enemies expect?

The Belarus crisis may be resolved, for now, but the fallout will be enduring. Europe could scarcely be more alarmed by Putin's behavior. Only a year ago, the Russian president ordered gas supplies cut off to Ukraine in a very similar dispute--and with similar disregard for European customers affected by the decision. Moscow devoted much of the past year to diplomatic fence-mending, spending billions on expensive PR consultants and a lavish G8 summit in St. Petersburg, pushing the message that Russia was, in Putin's words, a "reliable energy partner." But then, precisely a year later, Moscow did it again. "Once, we can maybe forgive," says a Western diplomat in Moscow not authorized to speak on the record. "Twice, no." The bottom line: Europe has little alternative but to not trust anything Russia or its president says.

Across the periphery of its old empire, from the Baltic to the Caspian, Putin's energy diplomacy has, in an astonishingly short time, made enemies of a fast-growing list of former friends. That catastrophic collapse of "soft power"--the ability to lead, influence and persuade others to do your bidding without having to force them--will have dire consequences for Russia's standing in the region for years to come. More, Moscow thought it had Europe firmly by the pipelines. Instead, Europe is scrambling to figure out how to lessen its dependence on Russia as quickly as possible. As it turns out, there are many ways to punch back, some of which can strike very soon.

A sweeping new European energy policy, unveiled last week, sets out to do just that by seeking alternative suppliers. The plan lays out targets for the EU to derive 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, as well as to dramatically improve energy efficiency. Electricity grids are to be integrated in Germany, Poland and Lithuania, as well as France and Spain, in order to help neighbors better weather oil and gas crunches. Chancellor Angela Merkel cited the Russian threat last week in suggesting that Germany rethink its retreat from nuclear power. There's a major push to build facilities for shipping Liquid Natural Gas, or LNG, from points across the globe. Yes, it's more expensive--but it's independent of pipeline politics. Meanwhile, Brussels is promoting a trans-Balkan gas pipeline bypassing Russia, dubbed Nabucco, which would link central Europe to gas producers in the Caspian. …

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