When Russia shut off three major natural gas pipelines that run to Europe via Ukraine earlier this month, it made business people wonder whether the Kremlin is aware of civilized ways to settle pricing disputes.
They're missing the point.
For the Kremlin, its chronic dispute with Ukraine over Russian-supplied natural gas is not a problem but a means to achieve its self-serving goals both geopolitical and kleptocratic.
Consider the timing of the gas shutoff early January (just like in 2006, the last time Russia acted on its traditional threats to limit or halt gas supplies to Ukraine unless it paid a higher price):
First, it gives the Kremlin opportunity to induce soul-searching in the Ukrainian government, forcing it to consider whether its openly pro-Western orientation is worth risking civil unrest among a freezing populace.
Second, it puts pressure on Eastern Europe namely Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, the countries that also lost pressure in their gas pipelines to stop siding with the United States in criticism of the Kremlin's increasingly aggressive foreign policy and violation of basic human rights in Russia.
The Kremlin's goal is to split up NATO and prevent it from keeping its military near Russia's borders and from participating in the U.S. anti-missile shield program, which it considers a threat. Russia's determination to act out presents one more foreign policy challenge for the incoming American administration of Barack Obama.
Ultimately, the Kremlin maintains this unfriendly posturing to justify its increasingly autocratic ways at home, where it has just reintroduced what in fact is a criminal code of the 1930s that made it possible for dictator Joseph Stalin to kill millions upon millions of Russians in the purges of those suspected of dissent.
The pertinent criminal code amendments have been rushed as an incentive for the populace to think twice before protesting against the government as their lives unravel under the pressure of the economic crisis.
Introduced by the Russian government and sure to be rubber-stamped by the Duma it controls the amendments are doing away with court juries in 'anti-state activity' trials, while spreading the notion that treason includes collaboration with any foreign or nongovernmental organization that can be suspected of being hostile to Russian statehood.
While the Kremlin ideologues try to downplay the gas dispute as a lingering bureaucratic squabble, the fact remains that the Kremlin never convincingly denied accusations of corruption after it shut down all three of the major gas pipelines to Ukraine three years ago.
Later, independent experts accused the Kremlin of setting up a shadow company that was overcompensated at the expense of the Russian taxpayers for buying Russian gas at an inflated price demanded by the Kremlin and then selling gas to Ukraine at a lower price.
So what lies at the core of the dispute, in addition to the Kremlin's expansionist foreign policy, is its self-interest the mundane greed of a bunch of former KGB operatives who are running Russia today.
No doubt Russia's powers-that-be figure the time has come to replenish their offshore bank accounts that have stagnated as a result of the drastic drop in oil prices that stopped the windfall of oil dollars they had been catching.
The gas shutoff highlights the importance of U.S.-European cooperation in dealing with Russia a major challenge the Obama administration will face, beginning at noon on Tuesday.