For a policeman on patrol,few calls inspire more gloom than a summons to a domestic dispute. There is a high chance of stumbling into a shouting match,in which right and wrong are beyond the power of outsiders to judge. There the officer stands,big boots and crackling radio horridly out of place in a homely kitchen,as family members exchange accusations. Yet sometimes developments can bring sudden clarity. Policemen know just what to do if somebody threatens to use force,or seriously disturbs the neighbours.
In a way the gas dispute between Ukraine and Russia since January 1st is like just such a family feud. The Russian prime minister,Vladimir Putin,has called Ukraines leaders criminal,and accused them of stealing gas meant for Europe. The Ukrainian president,Viktor Yushchenko,insists that Russia is to blame for cutting gas supplies that cross his country en route to European customers,and has described the opaque arrangements by which Russian gas reaches Ukraine as stinking.
Yet even in the worst-affected European Union country,Bulgaria,the head of the state gas monopoly,Dimitar Gogov,said he had no idea why no gas was coming in. I no longer know whom to believe, Mr Gogov confessed this week. Russia says one thing,Ukraine says another. And what goes for Mr Gogov goes for others,right up to the senior EU officials trying to sort out the mess. Nobody knows what is really going on inside the dispute that pits the Kremlin-controlled gas giant,Gazprom,against the squabbling political leadership in Ukraine (with a few oligarchs thrown into the mix for good measure).
The situation also resembles a domestic dispute in that it has spiralled out of control and now threatens the neighbourhood. For all that the EU is desperate not to take sides,Europeans have come to an important realisation. Russia has had several opportunities to make its point but still shield EU consumers from harm. Yet it has ignored them,choosing to put its bilateral dispute ahead of Europeans welfare. The Russians began the row by merely reducing gas supplies,but then-after accusing Ukraine of siphoning off gas meant for the EU-cut them completely,guaranteeing misery for many customers in the midst of a nasty cold snap. Later,as EU leaders tried to agree terms for sending monitors to verify flows in and out of Ukraine,Russia played endless political games. It demanded a hard copy of one written agreement,for example,and insisted on a manual of instructions for the monitors work before allowing their deployment.
EU officials argue that the decent thing would have been to restart supplies as early as January 9th,and wait for promised papers to arrive later,given the scale of the humanitarian suffering,and the fact that restarted gas would take some 36 hours to reach some shivering end users. Yet,regardless of the rights and wrongs of its wider dispute with Ukraine,Russia chose not to do the decent thing. Turning the taps off completely has backfired badly on Russia,says a diplomat. That is not to say the Ukrainians have not behaved stupidly and badly. But the Russians overplayed their hand.
This has shocked EU governments enough to ensure that the gas dispute has not been a repeat of last summers war between Russia and another ex-Soviet republic,Georgia. Then,as so often,the EU split into those who condemned Russia as an aggressor and those who argued that Russia had merely overreacted to a gross provocation by irresponsible Georgians. Ministers from some countries went even further,making sympathetic noises about Russian claims of secret American involvement in the Georgian war. Yet this time hints by a Gazprom boss,Alexander Medvedev,that Ukraines policies were being influenced from abroad (ie,from America) were greeted in Brussels not with knowing murmurs of assent,but with rolled eyes of disbelief. Ukraines behaviour has certainly caused anger,but Russia has gravely damaged its credibility.
Pipes and whistles
Not everybody has been converted. The Italian prime minister,Silvio Berlusconi,has played the role of a bored policeman outside a nasty domestic,telling gawking neighbours there is nothing to see. Europeans should not be worried by the crisis,he said. I can understand Gazproms reasons, added Mr Berlusconi,whose country has ample gas storage and who has forged close ties with Mr Putin,including a plan for Italy to co-operate in building a gas pipeline,South Stream,that would tighten Gazproms grip on EU gas supplies.
Germanys stance may be shifting,however,according to some officials. Europes largest economy has a famously snug relationship with Gazprom,with politicians and industrialists insisting that the Russian firm is a reliable energy supplier and a welcome potential investor in the EU. Germany (and to a lesser extent France) has fought moves to create a transparent,liberalised single European market for gas,which would do more than anything else to curb Russias ability to use gas to divide and rule. Germany still defends the right of big energy suppliers to own transmission systems (which makes life harder for new entrants). But at a meeting of energy ministers this week,the Germans talked of the need both for fuller market integration in Europe and for new pipelines,including Nabucco,which is meant to ship gas from the Caspian to Europe without going through Russia.
EU leaders have long talked of building a transparent gas market,with more interconnections between European countries so that gas can easily flow to the hardest-hit. Politicians say the latest gas crisis has proved the need for action,not words. An EU summit in March will put that to the test: governments will be asked to approve the spending of real money on real projects. If they fail the test,Europes internal squabbles,like many real-life domestic disputes,could yet have tragic consequences.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008