no russian respite

Posted on March 4, 2008

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Forget about a respite, let alone a new start, in Russian-Western relations with Russia’s new president, Dmitry Medvedev.

Right after winning the presidential elections over the weekend, Medvedev showed how much he is his predecessor Vladimir Putin’s prodigy. Not for Medvedev just the use of words to prove that he is a Putin-groomed man. Medvedev backed up his words to stay the course undertaken by Putin with action, by cutting the gas supplies from Russia to Ukraine.

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The latest gas cuts from Russia’s Gazprom to Ukraine, some 50% of total supply, was due to Russian accusations of Ukraine not paying bills for previous deliveries, to the tune of $1.5 billion. The Ukrainians deny that, claiming they had already settled that bill. The latest cuts mean Ukraine no longer gets gas directly from Russia, the BBC reports. But the problem is that Ukraine’s other sources of gas supplies from other states have to pass through Russian-controlled pipelines.

Medvedev, incidentally, is still the chairman of Gazprom.

So countries who had been hoping that the change of guard in the Kremlin would yield a more liberal leader are going to be sorely disappointed by Medvedev, or rather, the status quo.

The European Union is going to be very nervous about this development because its own gas supplies are pumped through Ukraine to reach the west. Two years ago, a similar Russia-Ukraine tiff, then over prices, affected gas supplies to the West. While the Russians have been quick this time to assure the West that the dispute will not affect them, the EU remains uncomfortable.

Not a good start in relations between Russia and the EU for Medvedev. This, especially after he said he would be the external relations face of Russia.

Besides sending a chill to the West, the leadership change also sent a firm signal that things would remain the same at home. The Kremlin set riot police on opposition protesters in Moscow, resulting in about 50 people being detained over the weekend, says the Financial Times.

But like it or not, the West really has no choice. Despite the cooling of relations with Russia, they still have to engage it and its new president. Russia has emerged as too important a power player in the world stage, from issues like North Korea, to Iran and the Middle East, to be ignored. It is just unfortunate that the atmosphere in which to conduct business has to be so chilly and unpleasant. But it is just as well that expectations remain low, so that the West could tread carefully and be well-prepared for future hiccups.

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Posted in: politics, russia, ukraine