1/02/2006

The Case for Vladimir Putin

Why is William Rees-Mogg saying 'that 'The Russians are ready for a new Cold War', in yesterday's 'Mail on Sunday'; or Simon Heffer declaiming in Saturday's 'Telegraph' that 'President Putin should be put down'?

The current energy crisis between Russia and Ukraine has meant that this morning, the front page headline in the dead-tree 'Daily Telegraph' was 'Putin sends a shiver through Europe'.
However, the piece notes that the price being demanded from Ukraine "merely brings Ukraine in line with the price that most of Europe pays: about $240 per 1,000 cubic metres".

This afternoon, the Telegraph has posted a report claiming that 'Ukraine 'stole $25m of gas''. It says that,

"Russia has promised to pump an extra 95 million cubic metres of gas to Europe to compensate countries experiencing a shortfall of up to 40 per cent following alleged thefts by Ukraine"; that "Gazprom, the Russian energy company which yesterday cut off deliveries of natural gas to Ukraine, accused the country of diverting about $25 million worth of fuel intended for customers in Europe."; that "Alexander Medvedev, deputy chairman of the state-controlled energy supplier Gazprom, said Ukraine siphoned off about 100 million cubic meters of natural gas yesterday alone"; and that, contrary to the denials of Victor Yushchenko, "Ukraine's energy minister Ivan Plachkov said Ukraine had the right to take a share of the gas exported via the Russian pipeline and would do so if the temperature fell below minus 3C".

One thing that shines through the fog of anti-Russian, anti-Putin propaganda surrounding this dispute is that Putin is determined to abolish subsidies and enforce market standards, the actions not of a brutal enforcer but a classical free-marketeer.
The Ukrainians have been paying a price far below market rate for Russian gas - Putin appears to simply be removing the subsidy of nearly 80% paid for by Russian consumers. The Ukrainians aspire to join the EU and NATO? Fine, but they pay EU rates. If one believes in free trade and free markets, you really can't have any argument with Putin's thinking.

If, as the Telegraph notes, "analysts estimate that a sudden quadrupling of gas prices would lead to the economy shrinking at five per cent a year - comparable only with Zimbabwe - bringing inflation of up to 30 per cent and costing millions of jobs", then, although that would be very sad, it would be as much a consequence of Ukraine's failure to diversify its economy after independence. Perhaps Yulia Timoshenko, Yushchenko's former ally and the so-called "Gas Princess", might have some suggestions for curing the current crisis - after all, she's made enough money out of Ukraine's privatised energy sector to have acquired some expertise in such matters.

But Putin's using Russia's resources as a political tool!
So what? One would very much rather have him pumping the oil to the West than to the East, and there's not going to be much relief from Iraq for a while. Putin might in fact be the reincarnation of Ivan the Terrible he is sometimes painted to be; on the other hand if he is using his country's natural resources as a diplomatic tool he might merely be acting in the best interests of the Russian people, which is the job they pay him to do.

But Putin's been bad to Mikhail Khodorkovsky!
Again, so what? Khodorkovsky, like Berezovsky and Abramovich, is little more than a common thief. They are as despicable as Putin is painted to be. Putin's prosecution of Khodorkovsky can be construed as a very healthy signal that the elected government of Russia intends to keep a monopoly on power. Khodorkovsky and Berezovsky both broke the deal whereby Putin would leave the oligarchs alone if they left him alone; and, in the interest of maintaining good Anglo-Russian relations, I for one would have no hesitation in revoking Berezovsky's asylum-seeker status and giving him a one-way ticket to Moscow.
Did we expect that democracy in Russia would spring from Gorbachev's birthmark like a fully formed Athena? If we did we were daft.

Putin at least has the virtue of being elected - he is their guy, and it does the cause of Russian democracy no good for Russia's citizens to see a Daily Telegraph columnist write that their electoral choice should be 'put down'.
Democracy in Russia is a process which may yet require some nurturing, if only because this is the first time in that country's long history that it has existed in any meaningful sense; and the constant baiting of Russia is not healthy either for their country or for ours.
Putin has also had the guts to be daring - in 2001, he instituted a flat tax and kicked off a wave of tax reforms which have shown him to be a very much more prudent fiscal conservative than either Tony Blair or George W. Bush; and prudence is not a virtue normally associated with fascists and tyrants. Economically, Putin is one of us.
At the time of Ukraine's so-called 'Orange Revolution', Justin Raimondo of Antiwar wrote a marvellous series of reports on just how deeply the process had been manipulated by neoconservative interests intent on circling Russia with a ring of bases. Raimondo's cynicism has been shown to be justified in every respect; and all of the negative criticism hurled at Putin by those newspapers like the 'Daily Telegraph', which so assiduously hectored for the invasion of Iraq and the Orange Revolution, are sour grapes for his refusal to swallow neocon crap, and for daring to put the interests of Russia first.
And the vodka of the neos leaves a very bad taste indeed.

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