[GLOBAL EYE]A new Russian strategyBeware of the Kremlin in winter. It is a maxim that Russian specialists keep in mind. We can easily find examples in recent history of explosive news from the Kremlin that shook the world at the end of the year.
In December, 1991, the world was celebrating Christmas and the New Year. However, Mikhail Gorbachev, the president of the Soviet Union, announced his resignation on the 25th and the news put the world into turmoil. In December, 1999, while the world was anticipating the beginning of a new millennium and panicking over the Y2K problem at the same time, Boris Yeltsin made a sudden resignation speech. The news hit the world on the night of New Year’s Eve. On December 31, 2005, Gazprom, the Russian state monopoly, announced that it would cut off its natural gas supply to the Ukraine.
The three incidents in 1991, 1999 and 2005 all have historic meanings. Having fulfilled the missions demanded of them by the times, Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin made resolute decisions to eliminate the uncertainty of Russia and the world by stepping down from the presidency. Russia was a military superpower with a nuclear arsenal and a fledgling democracy, and as the political leadership of Russia was shaky and the uncertainty over the future of Russia and the world gradually increasing, the two leaders made the decision not to go against the flow of the times.
The decisions befitted the Russians, whom Nikolai Berdyaev called an apocalyptic people. I was covering the historical events at the scene as a correspondent in Russia, and countless Russian intellectuals repeatedly used the phrase “apocalyptic choice.”
However, the incident in 2005 is different from the resignations of the two Russian leaders. It is an event illustrating a rupture in international politics where energy flow is once again interrupted for a political reason as in the 1973 oil shock, and it will aggravate political and economic uncertainties. Especially, the gas supply cut coincided with the weakening of Washington’s influence over the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
The interruption of the natural gas supply to the Ukraine is not surprising. It is a result of the “Saudi Arabia plus alpha” strategy, which Russia has been studying as the interests and importance of energy security increased after the 9/11 terror attacks. As Russia fought the Chechen War, Moscow was enraged by the double standards of the West’s criticism of its human rights violations. Therefore, Russia has been studying how Saudi Arabia, which is the largest energy provider in the world but also an undemocratic nation suppressing the human rights of its people, has been able to silence western criticism and exploit energy as a power in international politics.
Of course, unlike Saudi Arabia, Russia is a nation of diplomacy, culture and nuclear power. Geopolitically, it is located in a position where it can exert influence over both Asia and Europe. Therefore, Moscow has been seeking a new tactical plan surpassing Saudi Arabia’s strategy.
In 2006, Russia takes over the chairmanship of the G8. On December 31, Russian President Vladimir Putin had a telephone summit meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao and agreed to enhance the strategic cooperation between the two giants of Eurasia. And on its first day as G8 chairman, Moscow cut off the gas supply to the Ukraine. Of course, Russia could boast of its energy power with the decision. However, Russia’s international confidence is likely to decline just as the handling of the post-September 11 situation damaged the reputation of the United State.
Russia recently invited Gerhard Schroeder, the former Chancellor of Germany, to head a company constructing a sea-route gas pipeline to Germany, detouring the Ukraine. Moscow also asked Donald Evans, the former U.S. Secretary of Commerce and a close friend of President George W. Bush, to head the state-owned oil company Rosneft, but Mr. Evans turned down the offer. Gazprom is trying to advance into the U.S. market by acquiring an American gas retail company. Russia also wants to establish an organization of natural gas exporters. This winter, the Kremlin is simultaneously promoting a strategy that combines market forces and domestic politics with energy and international politics.
Fifteen years since the end of the Cold War, Russia’s decision to cut off the gas supply to the Ukraine is an experiment with a new strategy, showing off its renewed power to Europe and the world. The event is also very meaningful for Northeast Asia, where Russia’s energy influence is expected to grow.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Seok-hwan