The Iron Curtain Won’t Fall Down

Since the start of the New Year, the world has been subject to a rerun of the Cold War. Russian President Vladimir Putin closed the supply of natural gas destined for Ukraine. It was not so long ago that Eastern Europe had to conform to the standards established by the Kremlin, and many believed that with the demise of the Soviet Union, such coercion would no longer be a concern for the newly democratic and independent nations in the region. However, those in the Kremlin appear to think otherwise, especially as the nations in Eastern Europe have begun to develop Western-leaning policies in an effort to emerge from underneath the shadow of their big brother to the East. The Kremlin is particularly worried about the close ties that Ukraine has developed with the US. As Putin tries to coerce Eastern Europe away from the West, the United States must work to ensure that Eastern European countries maintain the complete independence that they gained at the conclusion of the Cold War. The dispute started when Gazprom, the state owned natural gas company in Russia, increased the rates for natural gas over four fold, from around $50 per 1,000 cubic meters to $230 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas. Gazprom supplies about a third of Ukraine’s natural gas. Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western President of Ukraine who came to power during the peaceful Orange Revolution, claimed that the price hike was an attempt by the Kremlin to punish Yushchenko and Ukraine for advancing pro-Western policies. Ukraine is trying to become part of the EU and NATO. Yushchenko told Putin that Ukraine would not give into the price hikes. Putin gave Yushchenko a compromise: Ukraine could accept the current price of $50 per 1,000 cubic meters, but in return, would have to acknowledge Gazprom’s right to increase gas prices whenever necessary. Yushchenko refused and Putin instituted a gas embargo against Ukraine that started on New Year’s Day. Western European countries should have rallied to Ukraine’s aid, but the only thing that they were worried about was whether their supplies of natural gas would continue to flow. As of early this week, Gazprom had confirmed that deliveries of natural gas to Western Europe, including Austria and Slovakia, had returned to normal. Talks about price increases and the gas embargo will begin in the upcoming weeks between Gazprom and Ukraine. Many European nations have called on Russia to bring the matter to a close quickly, and editorials raged against the Kremlin’s attempts at coercion. “Europe thought the Cold War was over with after the end of the Soviet Union,” reported the left-leaning French Liberation. “Now it’s caught in the crossfire between Russia and Ukraine and discovers the Kremlin can brandish the energy weapon with as much if not more devastating effect than it used to do with its nuclear weapons.” London’s Financial Times attacked Russia, and noted that the tactics used were irresponsible, especially as Russia will take over the presidency of the G8 Club of industrial powers for the first time, saying that “Mr. Putin is taking revenge on Ukraine for the triumph of Viktor Yushchenko, the West-oriented president.” With the problem at hand, the United States must now move to find a solution quickly. Eastern Europe has been a strong source of American support since the Cold War ended. As these nations have moved along the hard road towards freedom and democracy, they have looked to the United States as a model. Many even compare the Orange Revolution to the American Revolution, claiming that both were efforts by the oppressed to gain their political rights from their oppressors. Poland’s deployment of troops to Iraq is a testament to the nation’s pro-US stance. The United States must continue to show itself to be such a model of freedom in the eyes of the world, and should use appropriate diplomatic channels to urge Russia to quickly come to a compromise. If an increase in prices is necessary, they should not be raised to such an exorbitant rate. In this way, the United States respects Russia’s right to protect its business interests. We have more pressing issues at hand with the War on Terror, and I hope that Russia does not provide the United States with a reason to become sidetracked from this effort.