Yves here. This post, while informative, omits a critical piece of the calculus made by the West (or at least the US, in pushing Europe to fall into line) in its escalation of the conflict in Ukraine.
Europe depends on Russia for a significant proportion of its energy supplies. Last year, Russia provided roughly 30% of Europe’s gas. Half of this gas supply goes through Ukraine.
Russia is refusing to send Ukraine more gas until it pays past-due gas bills. Ukraine claims it owes Russia squat. Analysts have pointed out that Ukraine can and probably will syphon gas from supplies in transit to Europe. Russia could also shut the pipeline through Ukraine.
Thanks to Europe now having large energy stockpiles, due in part to a mild winter, conventional thinking had it that Europe could go at least six months from the tightening of sanctions before any energy restrictions started to bite. Some analysts (presumably based on official messaging) were confident that Russia would feel serious economic pain and be forced to relent before Russia could even begin to play its European gas supply card.
Ilargi’s post suggests that as this game of chicken is moving forward, European officials are starting to get nervous.
By Raúl Ilargi Meijer, editor-in-chief of The Automatic Earth. Originally published at Automatic Earth
More accusations fly across the media, like so many flocks of Canada geese, of direct Russian involvement in Ukraine. Much is made of an interview with Donetsk National Republic leader Alexander Zakharchenko, in which he “admits” there are Russian volunteers fighting on his side.
To the west, that’s all the proof they need. There are 1000 Russians in Ukraine, cries NATO. That doesn’t make them the Russian army though. If there are only 1000, that would be disappointing. These are people who are seeing their family just across the border shot to bits.
That Zakharchenko also said there were French and other nationals fighting on the same side is not deemed worth reporting. Just like not much has been made of the many thousands of German, British, French, Belgian, Dutch, Canadian and American nationals fighting in Syria and Iraq, mostly on the side of the IS. Other than the British guy in the beheading video, and the US citizen who got killed.
So the Commerce Department really just raised its Q2 US GDP estimate to 4.2%, one day after the CBO lowered its 2014 estimate to 1.5%? Oh my. What’s next?
I’m still thinking that even if Russia were involved in Ukraine, why would that make Putin a devil? After all, we know where the Ukraine army gets its financing from, and it too has many – foreign – mercenaries on its payroll.
Does anyone still think Putin is going to call uncle on this one? You should have been reading the Automatic Earth over the past year. He won’t, and he can’t.
Can we truly deny Russia, and Russian family members of east Ukrainian Russian-speaking people, the right to help out their people when they’re attacked by bombers and swastikas, while they have exactly zero planes themselevs? On what basis exactly? And what gives Kiev the right to bomb its own citizens?
But let’s not get into that again today. In the slipstream of the talks this weekend in Minsk between Putin and Poroshenko, a precious little detail seems to have escaped the western press entirely. But I think all our fine journalists will soon have to address it.
You may remember that in an earlier phase of the dispute between Ukraine and Russia (not to be confused with the Kiev vs rebels fight), no agreement was reached on the payment of a $4.5 billion gas bill that Russian Gazprom said was overdue from Ukraine’s Naftogaz. And Gazprom demanded pre-payment for any future gas deliveries to Ukraine.
Kiev, instead of paying the bill, claimed Russia had overcharged it for the already delivered gas, by $6 billion, going back to 2010. And brought its argument before the Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce.
Now maybe, just maybe, someone in the Kiev camp should have paused right before that moment, and consulted with their western backers in Brussels and Washington. Perhaps not so much Washington, but Brussels for sure, and Berlin. And Athens. Rome. Prague. Warsaw.
You see, a pending case before the Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce can apparently take 12-15 months to resolve. And perhaps Europe doesn’t have that much time. Which is what Putin hinted at at a press-op he did after the weekend Minsk talks. What it comes down is that even if Russia wanted to accommodate Ukraine, it can’t. On strictly legal terms, nothing political.
What’s more, Gazprom had already paid Naftogaz in advance for the use of Ukraine pipelines, but the payment was returned. And that can have grave consequences not just for Kiev, but for almost all of Europe. Lots of countries get their gas through these pipelines.
It looks like the EU, and especially Germany, has started to smell – potential – trouble:
The E.U. has suggested an interim agreement on the gas supplies between Russia and Ukraine without waiting for a Stockholm arbitrary court decision, E.U. Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger said in a news conference following his meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko late Tuesday Two cases are before the Stockholm court, but the hearings will take 12-15 months, which is too long, while Europe needs an interim solution for this winter, Oettinger said In June, Russian gas giant Gazprom switched Ukraine off gas over the unpaid debt and filed a $4.5 billion suit to the Stockholm arbitration court. Later, Kiev reciprocated by sending a suit to the court against Gazprom for making Ukraine overpay $6 billion for gas since 2010, setting too high prices in its contract.
The Russian Legal Information Agency has this:
The fact that Ukraine’s Naftogaz has invoked arbitration proceedings against Gazprom prevents Russia from giving Ukraine a gas price discount, President Vladimir Putin said in Minsk where he met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. “We cannot even consider any preference solutions for Ukraine since it pursues arbitration,” Putin said. “Russia’s possible actions in this sphere could be used against it in the court. We couldn’t do it even if we wanted to.” After Gazprom switched to a prepayment system for gas deliveries to Ukraine on June 16, Naftogaz turned to the Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce. Naftogaz wants Gazprom to cut the price for gas and to get back $6 billion that Ukraine has allegedly overpaid since 2010.
Gazprom in turn is seeking to recover Ukraine’s $4.5 billion debt for gas deliveries. Putin said Russia offered a compromise solution during the talks held before Gazprom switched to the prepayment scheme. “We reduced the price by $100,” Russian President said. Gas talks between Russia, Ukraine and the European Union went on from April to mid-June. Kiev said it would not repay its $4.5 billion debt unless Russia agreed to supply gas at a lower price. Russia offered a discount, but Ukraine turned down the offer. Russia then said it would only resume gas supply talks after Ukraine paid off its debt.
More signs of German nerves are here in a piece from the European Council on Foreign Relations – I kid you not, they exist -, along with a nice but curious admission:
As Germany takes over leadership of the European Union’s efforts to solve the Ukrainian crisis, Poland is questioning the motivations and strategies behind Berlin’s new diplomatic activism. The initiatives of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Chancellor Angela Merkel are being followed closely in Warsaw – and often with mixed feelings. Is Berlin trying to mastermind a compromise with Russia on Moscow’s terms, ignoring Kyiv’s vital interests? And as Poland is increasingly edged out of the conflict resolution process, has Berlin-Warsaw co-operation on EU Ostpolitik broken down?
Poland was, along with France and Germany, one of the countries that orchestrated the political shift in Ukraine in February. Since then, Warsaw has played a central role in forging a bolder EU response to Russia’s aggression and in providing meaningful assistance to the Ukrainian government. However, as the conflict has worsened, Warsaw has become less visible as an actor in crisis diplomacy. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski was not invited to join his German, French, Russian, and Ukrainian counterparts in the negotiations on conflict resolution held in Berlin in early July and early August. Before Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to meet at the Customs Union summit in Minsk on 26 August, the idea had been floated of holding another high-level meeting in the “Normandy format” of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine.
Kiev is either so high on the EU, US and NATO support it was promised, or so desperate over its latest battlefield losses, that it goes for all on red, probably thinking, and probably rightly so, that the western press will swallow anything whole. Tyler Durden:
So much for the Russia-Ukraine talks bringing the two sides together as even Germany’s Steinmeier could only say it’s “hard to say if breakthrough made.” Shortly after talks ended, Ukrainian Premier Yatsenyuk stated unequivocally that “we know about the plans of Russia to cut off transit even in European Union member countries,” followed by some notably heavy-on-the-war-rhetoric comments. The Russians were quick to respond, as the energy ministry was “surprised” by his statements on Ukraine gas transits and blasted that comments were an “attempt at EU disinformation.”
Here’s what Putin said at the press op after the talks:
Currently, we are in a deadlock on the gas issue. You see, this is very serious matter for us, for Ukraine and for our European partners. It is no big secret that Gazprom has advanced payment for the transit of our gas to Europe. Ukraine’s Naftogaz has returned that advance payment. The transit of our gas to European consumers was just about suspended. What will happen next? This is a question that awaits a painstaking investigation by our European and Ukrainian partners.
We are fulfilling all the terms of the contract in full. Right now, we cannot even accept any suggestions regarding preferential terms, given that Ukraine has appealed to the Arbitration Court. Any of our actions to provide preferential terms can be used in the court. We were deprived of this opportunity, even if we had wanted it, although we already tried to meet them halfway and reduced the price by $100.
The ball is squarely in the western court. Of course many will think and hope that Russia will give in because it needs the revenue, but the problem with that is it could cost the country too much (admittedly, that’s not the only problem). $6 billion to Ukraine for starters, then potentially many more billions on future deliveries to Kiev, and then there’s the rest of its contracts with two dozen or so European nations.
From a legal point of view, this may not be about what Moscow wants to do anymore, but about what it can. The Arbitration Court case may have tied its hands. And unless Europe wants a cold winter, it must seek a solution. Putin, who holds degrees in both judo AND law, understands this. But he didn’t set this up. Western and Kiev hubris did. Certain people got first too pleased with, and then ahead of, themselves.
So what now? There are several options. Ukraine can withdraw the case it has pending in Stockholm. A huge loss of face when you’re waging a war, even if it’s just against your own people. And it would still have to find money it doesn’t have, to pay its past and future gas bills. The fact that Naftogaz returned the Gazprom advance payment doesn’t bode well for that.
The west could end up – having to – withdraw its support for Kiev. But a lot of money has been poured into that support, NATO is erecting new bases on Russia’s borders, there is a war party sentiment, if not exuberance, building up.
There’s a lot of talk of Putin trying to save face, but I’m not so sure that comes from, let’s say, an ‘adequate’ understanding of what’s on the table. A more appropriate question might be: how does the Brussels bureaucracy save face? Angela Merkel may end up having to force them into humility, just so her people don’t freeze.
Or, of course, we could all go to war. Only, we wouldn’t even be able to figure out who’d be fighting whom, or for what reason. It would seriously risk repeating the very past the EU was designed to prevent.
Putin pointed to another rather difficult but highly interesting legal ‘technicality’ as well, which involves Ukraine moving closer to the EU economically:
We once again pointed out to our partners – both European and Ukrainian partners – that implementation of the association agreement between Ukraine and the EU carries significant risks for the Russian economy. We have shown this in the text of the agreement, directly pointing to specific articles in that agreement. Let me remind you that this concerns nullifying Ukraine’s customs tariffs, technical regulations, and phytosanitary standards.
The standards in Russia and Europe currently do not correspond. But, as you recall, the most classic example is the introduction of EU technical regulations in Ukraine. In that case, we would not be able to supply our goods to Ukraine at all. We have different technical standards. And according to the European Union’s standards, we will not be able to supply our machine-building products there, or any industrial goods. If that happens, we cannot accept Ukrainian agricultural production goods in our territory, because we have different approaches to phytosanitary standards. We feel that many problems would occur.
If we do not achieve any agreements and our concerns are not taken into account, then we will be forced to take measures to protect our economy. And we explained what those measures would be. So our partners must weigh everything and make corresponding decisions.
I think Ukraine, through Yatsenyuk and now Poroshenko, has grossly overplayed its hand. Encouraged by Brussels, which is also not nearly big enough for the chair it resides in, and Washington, which is partly simply clueless about the region and partly all too eager to engage in yet another campaign of “smart” bombing and regime change. And which, besides, stuck its neck so deep into the Middle East cesspool once again it has no chance of maintaining focus on an issue that mainly concerns Europe.
It is time for some cool heads to come to the fore, and for accusations and allegations and innuendo and spin to fade into the background, or this can get way out of hand.
European economies are easily doing bad enough for all efforts to be directed there, not to use this as an added motivation to incite trouble outside of EU borders.
If Kiev announces it’ll stop bombing its own citizens, and follows up on that, there’s no doubt the other side will calm down as well.
Ukraine and the west invited the lawyers in through the case they brought before the Stockholm court. Let’s leave it to the lawyers, and stop killing civilians while we do. Word.