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Friday, October 24, 2014
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Published: Thursday, 2/20/2014

COMMENTARY

Ukraine’s discord linked to Russian oil and gas

BY MIKE SIGOV
BLADE COLUMNIST
Mike Sigov Mike Sigov
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The death and abomination that are going on in Ukraine should be blamed on the greed of some corrupt Russian officials and Russia’s dependence on the oil and natural gas industry.

As the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia’s South wind down — marred by graft allegations and by a bloody conflict in nearby Ukraine — Russia’s kleptocrats are looking to the north, gearing up for an exploration of the Arctic that would make what happened in Sochi look like dime-store shoplifting.

In Sochi, Kremlin-affiliated businessmen have made off with what experts believe to be most of the $51 billion it took Russia to build the necessary infrastructure and host the games, more than four times the $12 billion originally planned, which would not have been possible without Russia’s energy cash cow.

In Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has used the country’s dependence on Russian natural gas supplies and a promise of a $15 billion bailout to cause Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to abandon plans of economic integration with the European Union and to crack down on the opposition.

Russia depends on its natural gas lines running through Ukraine to export Russia’s natural gas to Europe. Besides, Mr. Putin has a widely known fear that a revolution in Ukraine could be a precursor to a revolution in Russia that he might not survive.

Mr. Yanukovych’s change of heart on integration with Europe was the catalyst behind the clashes this week in Ukraine’s capital city, Kiev, in which at least 26 lives were lost.

Also dependent on Russian energy supplies, the European Union largely stood by idly as the conflict in Ukraine — where more than half of the population of about 45 million people is pro-Western — turned bloody, with Mr. Yanukovych stepping up his attempts to crush the protests in return for the bailout.

Enter the North Pole, which crowns the Arctic that experts say may account for as much as 20 percent of the world’s recoverable oil and natural gas resources yet to be discovered.

Unparalleled since the Soviet industrialization of the 1930s, the project presents an opportunity beyond the dreams of avarice for Mr. Putin’s cronies to further plunder Russia. It also comes in handy for Mr. Putin, who proclaims Arctic fossil-fuel resources as an untapped source to help restore the country’s grandeur. That helps him rev up the Russians’ patriotic feelings and support as he bleeds them dry.

In 2007, Russia planted its national flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean at the North Pole, symbolically claiming the Arctic seafloor and whatever resources may be lying underneath. Then last year Russia resumed a permanent naval presence in the Arctic, where it already has 25 icebreakers. The U.S. Navy has only two.

Despite its inferior industrial infrastructure, Russia’s oil and gas industry remains the backbone of its economy and its re-emerging international clout, allowing the Kremlin to reach far beyond Ukraine. And it is precisely to further its natural gas exports that Russia sabotages U.S.-led plans for the eventual security and stability of Syria, and helps Iran in its nuclear projects while pretending to be a peacemaker. Should peace prevail in Syria and should Iran verifiably give up its ambition to create a nuclear weapon, nothing would prevent Iran from going ahead with its plan to export natural gas to Europe via Iraq and Syria. That would threaten Russian natural gas exports to Europe.

The good news is that Russia now faces a challenge from the budding U.S. assertiveness that came to life after Russia antagonized the White House by granting political asylum to the NSA intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.

Aware of Russia’s inferior economic and military position, Mr. Putin has for years employed the proclaimed “asymmetric response” approach that amounted to countering U.S. policies primarily by supporting anti-U.S. governments and armed groups in countries that pose particular U.S. security concerns, such as Syria. Ironically, that is what the Soviet Union used to do not long before it fell apart.

All the United States has to do is to find ways to effectively support the opposition in Ukraine. That would send Mr. Putin a message that the United States is watching him and that angering the civilized world will have consequences.

Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow, is a U.S. citizen and a staff writer for The Blade.

Contact Mike Sigov at: sigov@theblade.com, 419-724-6089, or on Twitter @mikesigovblade.



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