The Call

The fight is over, but the hostilities continue

by Ian Bremmer    We shouldn’t be surprised that Moscow and Kiev have (for the moment) settled their differences over Russia’s supply of natural gas to Ukraine. A lot of that gas is ultimately destined for Europe, and cash-strapped and natural gas-dependent Europeans had applied considerable pressure to bring the two sides together. The increasingly heavy impact of the global financial slowdown ...

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by Ian Bremmer   

We shouldn’t be surprised that Moscow and Kiev have (for the moment) settled their differences over Russia’s supply of natural gas to Ukraine. A lot of that gas is ultimately destined for Europe, and cash-strapped and natural gas-dependent Europeans had applied considerable pressure to bring the two sides together. The increasingly heavy impact of the global financial slowdown added even more pressure. Ultimately, the Russian and Ukrainian governments reached agreement because both understood that the time for compromise had come.

But real damage has been done, and the genuine bitterness on both sides encouraged them to fight harder and for longer than either side could really afford. That’s not a good sign for where we go next.

Russia’s was always the stronger position. It’s their gas, and Ukrainians aren’t the only ones who need it. So why did the Kremlin push so hard? If all Moscow wanted was to bully its way into a better supply contract with Kiev, the fight might have ended much sooner. Even if it wanted to teach the Ukrainians a lesson and to create a demonstration effect for other governments, they needn’t have inflicted so much lasting damage on their own reputation as a reliable energy supplier for Europe.

In part, the answer comes from a broader view of Russia’s foreign policy goals. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, still very much in charge, sees the conflict in geopolitical terms and is speaking to a wider international audience. When Russia responded to Georgia’s provocations in a pair of breakaway provinces last August by striking Georgia directly, the Ukrainian government backed the Georgians. We shouldn’t underestimate the anger that that decision generated inside the Russian government. Some in the Kremlin probably wanted Ukraine (and others) to see that anger-and to raise the cost of efforts to embarrass Russia or to obstruct its plans.

Like the Israelis, the current Russian government sometimes feels it must strike much, much harder than its opponents can…to send a message that further provocations will not be tolerated. The Russians also worry that the West (and the US, in particular) is meddling in Moscow’s commercial relations with Kiev. Moscow hopes the United States and EU will back away from active support for Ukraine by making that support appear self-defeating.

In Ukraine, there are three heavyweight political actors who agree on very little, virtually paralyzing the policymaking process on all but the most urgent economic questions. President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko both wanted to resolve the gas problem, but they agree on little else, particularly when it comes to engaging Russia. Opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych is waiting for both to fail.

It was Tymoshenko who got the gas deal done because the Russians consider her much more flexible than Yushchenko. (She’s a “nationalist” but doesn’t push nearly as hard as the president on Ukraine’s bid to join NATO.) The Russians were ultimately willing to compromise on some issues if cutting a deal with Tymoshenko damaged Yushchenko and relieved stress on Gazprom. But the deal is unlikely to help build some new consensus within the Ukrainian government on how to improve the broader relationship with Russia.

All these calculations make clear that the agreement on gas supplies that finally emerged will not create a foundation for longer-term improvement in Russian-Ukrainian relations. The agreement does help reduce tensions to a simmer, but the next flashpoint could be just behind the horizon. That’s bad news for the United States, the European Union, and for everyone else who cares about stability in the region where Europe collides with the former Soviet Union.

It’s especially tough to guess Russia’s next move, because its government is extremely opaque and because sensitive information and real decision-making authority rests in so few hands. In fact, Putin holds more power than any other individual in the world. All of these factors bolster the country’s political stability — at least for as long as Putin remains in charge. But they make Russian foreign policy especially difficult to predict, because there’s little need to build consensus in advance of a geopolitical gamble and fewer officials within government who know what’s about to happen.

It won’t be long before Russia and Ukraine are at it again — over energy supplies or something else. President Barack Obama would like to improve U.S.-Russian relations, and Europeans want to have confidence that Russia will provide steady supplies of energy. More trouble between Moscow and Kiev will prevent either from happening any time soon.

ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

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