AT 1000 HOURS ON New Year's Day, the Russian state-controlled natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, shut down natural gas deliveries to Ukraine -- the second supply cut in three years. Russia's justification for trying to freeze its neighbor in the middle of winter is that Kiev is over $2 billion in arrears and has refused a 2009 price hike that more than doubles the 2008 rate.
The latest Gazprom pricing policy strips away any remaining veneer of credibility from previous statements by Moscow that it will "not use energy as a weapon." Russia wants Ukraine to now pay $418 per 1,000 cubic meters for natural gas. This is higher than Germany, Gazprom's biggest customer, pays and more than four times the rate levied on Belarus.
Pressuring Ukraine now is a blatant attempt to destabilize one of the few former Soviet republics that is not a one man, president-for-life police state and has real prospects for eventually becoming a NATO member. These gas hikes, coupled with the impact of the current international economic crisis, could deal a fatal blow to the country, which is precisely what Moscow wants.
Using energy resources to interfere in its former vassal state is nothing new for the Kremlin. In the early 1990s classified Russian government documents published in the press spoke candidly about "strangling Ukraine with gas." In 2001, a NATO military officer posted here to Kiev told me that "the rule of thumb around here is that if you are working on any kind of agreements or projects with Ukraine that the Russians might object to, you had better have them all signed off by the middle of the summer -- during warm weather. Come winter time Moscow starts playing games with the gas supply to try and have things their way."
This Russian behavior has not changed, but the urgency Moscow attaches to bringing Kiev to its knees has increased markedly. The regime of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his decorative president, Dmitri Medvedev, needs a "phantom enemy," as more than one Russian political commentator has labelled it. The phantom enemy being the West in general; and the US, NATO, UK prosecutors and prime ministers that object to its citizens being murdered with exotic nuclear poisons, etc. in particular.
Not one single promise Putin and Co. made about how they would change the direction that Russia had taken under the "wild east" administration of Boris Yeltsin has been kept. Graft and other payoffs are more pervasive than ever, and in 2005 Russia tied with Albania on the corruption index compiled by Transparency International. The Russian military, which Putin vowed to rebuild after years of neglect under his predecessor, remains largely unreformed and outdated, and performed abysmally in its August 2008 incursion into Georgia. Most of the Kremlin's policies virtually ensure that any steps towards modernizing Russia will be inhibited -- if not blocked altogether.
So, now more than ever, the Kremlin need this enemy -- the specter of Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO and this evil alliance "knocking at the door of Mother Russia" -- in order to scare its population into offering unqualified support for its policies. But this tactic will become increasingly untenable as bank failures and other economic bad news begin to batter Russia well into 2009, with the consequence that Moscow will undoubtedly ratchet up its pressure on Ukraine in an attempt to compensate.
In the face of these realities (and almost two decades since the fall of Soviet Communism), there are still 21st century variants of what Lenin once described as "useful idiots." Their prescription for how the United States should manage the situation between Ukraine and Russia is living proof of Winston Churchill's quote about appeasement meaning feeding a crocodile in the vain hope that it will eat you last. There is talk of secret deals with Moscow, promises of no new NATO bases and no further NATO expansion on Russia's borders in exchange for Moscow's consent to Ukraine existing in a Finland-like status, with a guarantee of sovereignty and no interference in Ukraine's internal affairs.
To accept that Moscow would not interfere internally in Ukraine -- or, more accurately, that it would end its 18-year long effort to infiltrate and fracture the country -- and that no longer would the gas valve be used as a blunt instrument is no less than feeding the Ukrainians to the proverbial crocodile.
Reuben F. Johnson is a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.