The battle of the oligarchs behind the gas dispute
By Jérôme Guillet and John Evans
Published: January 6 2009 19:31 | Last updated: January 6 2009 19:31
A monolithic, Putin-led Kremlin using the “energy weapon” to browbeat neighbouring Ukraine and, beyond, threaten the rest of Europe with natural gas shortages: the image has become a commonplace during the “gas spats” of the past few years. Yet those spats have a longer history than is generally appreciated – they began in 1992 – and, what is more, Vladimir Putin and Gazprom cannot win a prolonged gas war, and they know it.
The Soviet gas industry was born in Ukraine in the 1930s and the infrastructure was built from there. Ukraine remained a central part of the gas pipeline network even as the focus of activity moved to western Siberia. Carving up the Soviet Union along along the borders of its former republics made for an often unworkable allocation of physical assets. Vital assets for Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, are located in Ukraine and thus no longer under its direct control: the pipelines are an obvious item, but, just as significantly, Ukraine controls most of the storage capacity of the Russian export system. On the other hand, Ukraine, a heavy industry country, has mostly depleted its gas reserves, making it dependent on gas from Siberia.
So this is a situation of mutual dependence. Russia needs Ukrainian infrastructure to honour its export contracts to Europe, and Ukraine needs Russian gas. In case of conflict, withholding gas (from Russia’s side) or shutting down export infrastructure (from Ukraine’s) are tempting options, which have been taken up repeatedly since the demise of the Soviet Union.
Ukraine used to get its gas allocation from Soviet planners and continued to expect the same after independence. When Russia first tried to get payment for its deliveries in the early 1990s, it failed. When it first cut off gas to Ukraine to enforce payments, Ukraine simply tapped the gas sent for export purposes; when European buyers howled, Russia relented and restored gas supplies without having managed to get paid by Ukraine. This has gone on. Yet somehow the gas continues to flow every year.
Russia cannot cut off Ukraine for any lengthy period of time, because that endangers its exports. In practice, giving roughly 20 per cent of its gas shipments to Ukraine as payment for transit is an acceptable deal for both sides. So why the annual charade?
Gazprom understood long ago that Ukraine would never pay for official deliveries. The attempted “solution” was to privatise a portion of the trade. Customers were offered lower rates if they paid them directly to another supplier, formally unrelated to either Ukrainian gas authorities or Gazprom.
The co-operation of senior Gazprom management and Russian and Ukrainian politicians was required to set up the 30bn-cubic-metre-a-year trade. The trade’s enablers are in a position to benefit personally from it – and in effect cut out both Kiev and Gazprom. Political infighting in Ukraine can largely be understood by the struggle to be the Ukrainian counterparty to the trade. (It is no coincidence that Yulia Tymoshenko, the prime minister, made her fortune in gas trading in the 1990s and that Viktor Yanukovich, the pro-Russia opposition leader, represents some of the largest heavy industrial gas buyers in eastern Ukraine.) In Russia, similarly, both the Kremlin and Gazprom are rife with infighting between shifting coalitions.
So while the world focuses on the predictable brinkmanship between Ukraine and Russia, the real fight over the share-out is taking place more discreetly between a few oligarchs in Moscow and Kiev. This is perhaps the whole purpose of the noisy puppet show. Worries about Russia or Gaz prom using the “gas weapon” against Europe are misplaced. In their official capacity, both are keenly aware of their absolute dependency on exports to Europe for a huge share of the country’s income, and on the need for stable, reliable, long-term relationships to finance the in vestments needed in gas infrastructure.
Of far more concern is that governments in Ukraine and Russia tolerate – indeed encourage – use of their upper political echelons and large parts of their infrastructure as instruments in disputes between unknown oligarchs. It suggests how little the rule of law and principles of accountability have penetrated public life in each country. And also, compared with the power of competing factions, how overstated is the strongman reputation of Mr Putin, Russia’s prime minister.
Jérôme Guillet, an investment banker, and John Evans, a writer, are the editors of the European Tribune, a news and debate website (www.eurotrib.com)