Crank of the Week - January 5, 2009 - Vladimir Putin

A natural gas crisis looms over Europe after a contract dispute between Russia and Ukraine led Russia to shut off gas supplies to seven countries and reduce gas deliveries to several others. The cause of the crisis is Vladimir Putin—Russian Prime Minister and all around KGB fun guy—who ordered Alexei Miller, chief executive of the Russian state gas company Gazprom, to cut supplies shipped through Ukraine. Claiming that Ukraine has stolen $2 billion worth of gas that was bound for Europe Putin ordered Miller to “start reducing it from today.”

So far, there are no reports of a fall in deliveries of Russian gas to Western European countries via Ukraine. Since January 3, however, a number of Eastern European countries have been affected: Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Croatia and Greece. Poland has been the most severely effected, with supplies via Ukraine down by 11% compared with a month earlier. At least two Bulgarian cities were totally without gas Tuesday, and nations like Turkey are turning to Iran to secure their supply.

The European Union (EU) criticized Russia and Ukraine, saying the sudden cutoff to some of its member countries was “completely unacceptable.” Just yesterday, the EU was trying to downplay any problems from the gas dispute—they should have known better. This is not the first time that rootin' tootin' Putin has used Russian gas shipments as a weapon: in March 2005 a serious dispute arose over natural gas and transit prices. Then as now, the dispute culminated in cutting gas supplies to Ukraine on January 1, 2006. The situation calmed on January 4 when a new agreement was reached and supply was restored.

It seems that several EU nations didn't take the lessons of 2005-2006 to heart and have been caught with their reserves down. Conservative critics of Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown have warned that the UK only has enough gas in storage to keep the country running for about 15 days. Tory energy spokesman Greg Clark said: “As a result of ten years of government inaction, Britain is one of the most vulnerable countries in Europe to turbulence in gas supply.” By comparison, France, which gets the majority of its electricity from nuclear power, could last up to 122 days.

Map from the UK Daily Mail.

Putin's heavy handedness is leading other European countries to rethink their flight from nuclear power. According to President Georgi Parvanov, Bulgaria could start immediate preparations to relaunch Unit 3 of its Kozlodui nuclear power plant. Its two 440-megawatt reactors are of an old Soviet design and not considered as safe as more modern western designs. They were shut down two years ago, but Parvanov said one of them could be up and running within a month.

Even if you don't think that digging up and burning 6.5 billion tons of carbon a year is a problem, even if the brief excursion of oil prices to $150 a barrel didn't phase you, here is an object lesson about why depending on fossil fuel imports is a really bad idea. With energy prices crumbling and Russia's formerly booming economy in the tank, Vlad is distracting the Russian people from domestic issues by cracking down on his former friends. Hydrocarbon thugs abound in this world—Putin, Chavez, Amadinijhad, etc—and only the very foolish willingly place themselves under a thug's control.

So thanks for the chilling blast of cold war style Russian foreign policy, Vlad. For shaking things up by playing the gas card in international politics and being the crankiest despot in the world today, this Crank of the Week is for you. Budem zdorovy, comrade.

The Empire Strikes Back

Vlad is at it again, threatening Europe's supply of natural gas with winter on the horizon.