Editorial: Energy Security Is Europe’s Top Priority

  • Date: 11/04/14
  • Editorial, The Times

Energy security must be the main issue at the June EU summit, top of the in-tray for the European Commission and be part of the deliberations at the Nato summit in September.

Russia is applying a pincer movement against Ukraine, With one claw it is seeking to destabilise the government in Kiev by encouraging separatists in the cities of the east. With the other, it is using the price of its gas to push Ukraine towards bankruptcy. These moves, executed in sinister concert, are intended not only to topple the interim government but also to scare off the West. The Kremlin wants the United States, the European Union (EU) and foreign investors to view Ukraine as a dysfunctional state not worthy of a serious political, never mind military, response.

That is dangerous brinkmanship, more menacing in its way than the blatant takeover of Crimea. Plunging Ukraine into perpetual crisis is not the action of a responsible regional power. We should not be part of this familiar and manipulative game. A co-ordinated western response to the creeping invasion of eastern Ukraine should be formulated, ready to be deployed next week. EU foreign ministers meeting on Monday must take the first step by implementing US ideas for banking sanctions and moving beyond simple blacklists of undesirable officials. The West has to signal that it has ways of tracking down Mr Putin’s personal fortune. The timing of these measures should not be made conditional on quadripartite diplomatic talks between Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the EU. These talks are unlikely to register any success. Even sitting down with representatives of the interim Kiev government would mark a reversal of Kremlin policy. Its strategy is plainer now than it has been at any time since the fall of its broken puppet Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president, in February. The aim is to use the remaining six weeks before the May 25 Ukrainian election to drive the country apart and thus rob legitimacy from any future government.

It is Moscow’s use of the energy weapon, though, that could propel a dispute about gas pricing out of the arbitration courts (where it belongs) to a new level of confrontation. That seems to be Mr Putin’s intention. If the West is forced to pay Ukraine’s gas bill to Russia — apart from the $2.2 billion payment to Gazprom missed on Monday night, there is a Russian demand for $11.4 billion — that will be a triumph of sorts for Mr Putin. Anything that pushes up the cost of western support for the Ukraine fits into his strategy. The acting Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, is right to identify a “plan to pressure and grab Ukraine through gas and economic aggression.”

Part of the International Monetary Fund’s $18 billion stand-by loan to Kiev is earmarked to cover a shortfall in its payments for Russian energy. And the Ukrainian government has hiked the price of domestic gas in anticipation of Russia applying the squeeze. Yet that will almost certainly not be enough. There is a real danger that Ukraine’s Naftogaz, unable to settle bills, starts to siphon off Russian gas in transit to western Europe. At its worst, the gas war could then turn into a hot war.

Energy security must be the main issue at the June EU summit, top of the in-tray for the European Commission and be part of the deliberations at the Nato summit in September. That means building more storage facilities, investing in liquefied natural gas terminals, developing shale gas and opening up supplies from the US. Mr Putin wants to exact a price for our support for an intact Ukraine. He needs to understand that his unacceptable behaviour carries an even higher price.

The Times, 11 April 2014