Comment: Russia's dependence on Ukraine is tied to energy export goals

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The death and abomination that is going on in Ukraine should be blamed on the greed of some corrupt Russian officials and Russia's dependence on the oil and natural gas industry.

As the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia's south wind down -- marred by graft allegations and by a bloody conflict in nearby Ukraine -- Russia's kleptocrats are looking to the north, gearing up for an exploration of the Arctic that would make what happened in Sochi look like dime-store shoplifting.

In Sochi, Kremlin-affiliated businessmen have made off with what experts believe to be most of the $51 billion it took Russia to build up the necessary infrastructure and host the games, more than four times the $12 billion originally planned, which would not be possible without Russia's energy cash cow.

In Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has used the country's dependence on Russian natural gas supplies and a promise of a $15 billion bailout to have Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych abandon plans of economic integration with the European Union and crack down on the opposition. Russia depends on its natural gas lines running through Ukraine to export Russia's natural gas to Europe. Besides, it is Mr. Putin's widely known fear that a revolution in Ukraine could be a precursor of a revolution in Russia that he might not survive.

This move is the catalyst behind the clashes this week in Ukraine's capital city of Kiev, in which at least 26 people have been killed. Also dependent on Russian energy supplies, the European Union largely stood idly by as the conflict in Ukraine -- where more than half of the 45 million population is pro-Western -- turned bloody as Mr. Yanukovych stepped up his attempts to crush the protests in return for the Moscow bailout.

Enter the North Pole, which crowns the Arctic that experts say may account for as much as 20 percent of the world's recoverable oil and natural gas resources yet to be discovered.

Unparalleled since the Soviet industrialization in the 1930s, the project presents an opportunity beyond the dreams of avarice for Mr. Putin's cronies to further plunder Russia. It also comes in handy to Mr. Putin, who proclaims Arctic fossil-fuel resources as an untapped source to help restore his country's grandeur.

In 2007, Russia planted its national flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean at the North Pole, symbolically claiming the Arctic seafloor and whatever resources may be lying underneath. Then last year, Russia resumed a permanent naval presence in the Arctic, where it already has 25 icebreakers -- while the U.S. Navy maintains only two.

Despite its inferior industrial infrastructure, Russia's oil and gas industry remains the backbone of its economy and its re-emerging international clout, allowing the Kremlin to reach far beyond Ukraine.

And it is exactly in the interest of Russia's natural gas exports that it sabotages the U.S.-led efforts for eventual stability in Syria, and helps Iran in its nuclear projects while pretending to be a peacemaker. Should peace prevail in Syria, and should Iran verifiably give up its ambition to create a nuclear weapon, nothing would prevent Iran from going ahead with its plan to export natural gas to Europe via Iraq and Syria, which would threaten Russian natural gas exports to Europe.

The good news is that Russia now faces a challenge from the budding U.S. assertiveness that came to life after Russia antagonized the White House by granting political asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor and secrets leaker.

Fully aware of Russia's inferior economic and military position, Mr. Putin for years has employed the proclaimed "asymmetric response" approach that effectively amounted to countering U.S. policies primarily by supporting anti-U.S. governments and armed groups in countries of particular U.S. security concern, such as Syria -- which, ironically, is just what the Soviet Union used to do before it fell apart.

All the United States has to do is to find ways to effectively support the opposition in Ukraine, which would send Mr. Putin a message that the United States is watching him, and that angering the civilized world has consequences.

The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow, is a U.S. citizen and a staff writer for The Blade.


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