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KIEV, Jan. 12 — They say that in war, the first casualty is the truth. Well, war has nothing on Ukrainian-Russian gas negotiations.
Press reports do not do justice to absolute “what the hell is going on here?” aspect to this dispute. First, no one expected it to go on for this long. “It will be done at the end of the week,” seemed to be the general consensus. Then there’s the fact that Russia — incredibly — employed the nuclear option, so to speak, by turning off the gas pumps. (Or was it Ukraine, accused of stealing the gas?) And now, just when a deal seemed to have been struck, the Russians backed out, saying that when Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko signed in a separate ceremony, she pretty much stapled a new set of conditions to the document.
Then there’s the fact that both sides call each other flat-out liars. Really, I’ve seen hockey brawls more civil than this. “A mockery of common sense,” Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, said after Ukraine’s apparent last-minute additions. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin blamed the crisis on Ukraine’s “criminal” leadership. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said Russia “humiliated” Ukraine. Obviously, part of the issue is the extreme sums of money that are being discussed. Both Moscow and Kiev are being squeezed by the world financial crisis, and the hundreds of millions of dollars that constitute the difference in the tariff fee proposals could make a huge impact on Ukraine’s budget or Gazprom’s ailing balance sheet.
But business is business, as Don Corleone would say. This argument is obviously much more personal.
Is it because Putin and Medvedev apparently detest Yushchenko? Maybe. Is it because Yushchenko and Tymoshenko also have a hard time sitting in a room together? Also maybe. Or else is it because Tymoshenko, as is rumored, wants to eliminate the middleman company RosUkrEnergo, and the huge sums of money that it has accrued, which then can be used as a slushfund against her candidacy in the upcoming presidential elections? Again — possible. Or is it because the two sides want to discredit each other in the eyes of the Europeans, and score points for their own agendas — the Russians pushing for their Nord and South Stream pipeline projects that bypass Ukraine, and the Ukrainians pushing for EU and NATO membership? All scenarios are equally possible, in any number of combinations.
What enjoyment can be obtained from this fiasco — where schools and factories are being closed down in Eastern Europe? Not much, to be blunt. But there have been a few relative high points. I particularly enjoy the staged “spontaneous discussions” among the Russian leadership that Russian television broadcasts, sometimes live. “How are our natural gas supplies to Western Europe going?” Putin queried Gazprom head Alexei Miller, as if he had no idea what was happening. The other aspect to savor is the formidable Yulia Tymoshenko. Perfectly assembled and coiffed, she whisks into a room like a tigress in taffeta. I feel sorry for anyone sitting across the table from her.
The world’s attention will probably move on, once Russia turns on the pumps again. This is unfortunate — the Russia-Ukraine contretemps deserves our full attention to the bitter end. One gets the sense that when the two sides restart the negotiations that started this whole mess in the first place, it will be better viewing than “Lost”.