Monday, December 30, 2013

Putin Wins in the Ukraine

James J. Coyle: Putin wins in Ukraine

By JAMES J. COYLE / For the Register
Anti-government protesters gather on Independence Square on Dec. 13, in Kiev, Ukraine.
In Kiev, the crowds are fading from the Euromaidan, scene of the largest demonstrations since the Orange Revolution. The onslaught of winter has driven the people to their homes – and the warmth of New Years and Eastern Orthodox Christmas will hold them there for weeks to come.
Ukrainian anger over President Viktor Yanukovych's spurning of the European Union may simmer for some time, but Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have won the country by delivering something no one else could: cheap energy to heat their homes through the winter.
Under Russian pressure, Ukraine abandoned its plans to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Yanukovych promised to fire the officials in his government who negotiated the Free Trade Area Agreement and demanded at least $27 billion dollars from the European Union to resume negotiations – a demand EU enlargement chief Stefan Füle said had “no grounds in reality.” EU talks are now suspended.
Both Russia and Ukraine benefit from canceling the deal. For Russia, Ukraine stays in Moscow's economic and strategic orbit. “Ukraine is our fully-fledged strategic partner beyond any doubt,” said Putin.
Russia did not get everything it wanted, however. Moscow pushed Ukraine to join its own economic pact, the Eurasian Customs Union. So far, Ukraine has resisted. Russia also moved one step closer to taking over the Ukrainian natural gas pipeline network.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov announced it was prepared to resume talks on establishing a consortium to manage the system, a proposal that Kiev had previously rejected. Ukraine's president said the “road is open” to making Gazprom, the Russian government-controlled gas company, a partner.
As for Ukraine, it received a much-needed economic aid package, as well as a reduction in the price it pays Moscow for natural gas. Putin announced the Russian government would purchase $15 billion in Ukrainian government bonds. He said the aid was being granted without any preconditions. The first $3 billion was scheduled to be transferred on Dec. 24.
Gazprom agreed to give the Ukrainian government's natural gas importer Naftogaz more time to pay its $1.3 billion debt and promised not to demand advance payments for future gas shipments. In addition, Gazprom slashed the price Ukrainians will pay for natural gas from over $400 per thousand cubic meters (the highest price in Europe) to $268.5. Reducing the price of gas by one-third gives the deal the boost that is needed to win the support of the Ukrainian populace.
In all likelihood, Gazprom will not lose money, despite the deep discount. Faced with price disputes throughout 2013, Ukraine had reduced the quantities it purchased from Russia by one-third. If gas purchases now return to 2012 levels, Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimates Gazprom's core profit will increase 1.5 percent.
The price cut is also the leash by which Putin keeps Ukraine in line. Russia's president added that the drop might be temporary. In other words, any move to resume relations with Brussels could easily result in a return to the previous price.
James J. Coyle is a professor and the director of Global Education at Chapman University and chair of the Eurasian Committee of the Pacific Council on International Policy.