Was There a Winner in Russia-Ukraine Gas Dispute?

Were the Ukraine and Russia equally losers in the drawn-out gas dispute that ended earlier this week, after causing severe disruption in a number of European countries? A commentary that appears in todayâ''s Financial Times concludes that â''the battlefield is littered with losers and there are very few winners to be seen.â'' Russiaâ''s Gazprom lost an estimated $1.5 billion in foregone revenues, and Russiaâ''s most loyal energy clientsâ''Bulgaria, Serbia, and Slovakiaâ''were the most adversely affected. â''The Russians overplayed their hand,â'' an EU official is quoted as saying, by writer Quentin Peel.

A commentary in the Wall Street Journal concludes, somewhat in the same vein, that Ukraineâ''s beleaguered president Viktor Yushchenko could emerge stronger. The crisis forced him and his rival Yulia Timosheshenko, Ukraineâ''s prime minister, to bury the hatchet at least temporarily, which could work to Yushchenkoâ''s ultimate benefit. â''If he [now] redirects his energies to constructive dialogue, he can help promote sound fiscal policy and accelerate privatization efforts which the political deadlock has blocked,â'' opines Europe correspondent Adrian Karatnycky, writing from Kiev.

My own dissenting view is somewhat less sanguine. Though Russia paid very high tactical prices, it may have achieved its strategic objective. This is because the crisis left the impression that both countries are equally to blame. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso condemned the conduct of both and said â''I will not soon forget that.â'' Though the details and implications of the deal are obscure, it seems almost certain that the dispute will resurface, with Ukraine continuing to have trouble paying its bills, as Peel observes.

Unless Europe acts aggressively to build gas reserves and diversify supply arrangements in anticipation of another crisis, Russia will still hold a winning hand. Renegotiation of the dealâ''s terms could precipitate a rerun that could end with Ukraine forced to sell its transit pipeline company to Gazprom. Or worse.


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