Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Ivan Meets G.I. Joe

The Ukrainians are engaging in an obvious bit of tit-for-tat with the Russians by seizing/reposessing lighthouses on its territory, which are crucial to the safe navigation of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. The Ukrainians are talking about increasing the rent for these lighthouses, which it probably has the right to do - despite it being crudely analogous to Russia increasing the price of its gas.

The Germans, under their new Chancellor, have signaled that they want cooler ties with Moscow and warmer relations with the US. Following from that, there has been an interesting reaction to the gas dispute in that the conventional wisdom seems to be that Russia's stature as a safe energy supplier has suffered as a result of the Ukrainian dispute. This is a nonsense line of reasoning. I'm sure some political genius could argue the toss with me, but pure supply-and-demand economics dictates that Russia holds all the cards and Europe none. The Russians are making, and will continue to make, a vast fortune from their energy reserves and, with that, Russia's power will continue to grow. The EU knows this and will never really risk alienating the Russians, despite the rhetoric.

Anyway Russia has not applied what are deemed to be fair market practices either to its own citizens or to the countries of the former Soviet Union that it regards as allies. In fact the WTO have demanded that Russia's own citizens pay full price for Russia's gas as a condition of entry to that organisation (and in a country THAT cold!...). That they have chosen to charge Ukraine the going rate for its gas (i.e. the same rate the rest of Europe pays and will have to pay) is hardly surprising given Ukrainian ambitions to move away from Russian influence.

Meanwhile the United States continues to try to squeeze Russia in the great game. Russia is still regarded as a threat to American hegemony and American wingnuts have openly mused about the possibility of war with Russia were it to, for example, try to reassert control over Georgia. Therefore one would think that a strong Russia might act as some sort of counterweight to America's more madcap notions (if getting bogged down in Iraq hasn't already achieved that).

I must admit I have a soft-spot for Russia - "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" according to Churchill - but there's no denying it does not reach the standards that Western democracies take for granted. Having said that the Russia of the 1990s was brought to its knees following the rape of its assets under Yeltsin's corruption-ridden but western friendly government. So it's hard not to say "good on you" to the Russian state for the way it managed to claw back some of the damage (and its power) while upsetting the western uber-capitalists in the process.

Russia's use of excessive force against the Chechens is lamentable, and doomed to stalemate at best. However only the convoluted thinking that leads to a 'moral clarity' distinguishes military action against enemies on your own territory, resulting in 'military bludgeoning', from military action against a basket case on the other side of the world that posed no threat, resulting in 'collateral damage'. Do the Russian's not have a right to protect their own interests in the same way we're expected to support America's right to protect hers? The difference is that the Russians don't bother pretending they're a 'beacon of freedom'.
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