Wow. Our experiment is off to a great start—let's see if we can finish it off sooner than expected.
Break out your Scorpions records and your parachute pants, for the neo-Cold War is here. Just as your high school's star quarterback now daydreams about past glories while stocking the cereal aisle in your local supermarket, Russia's Vladimir Putin has never quite been able to let go of his KGB past. Like any member of the old Soviet elite, he's gripped the reigns of power with an iron fist and has demonstrated his nostalgia for the once-powerful Motherland by emulating its approach to politics—the political assassinations, the press intimidation, and the corrupt, old-boy political style. Now add military gamesmanship, nuclear sabre-rattling, and economic extortion to the list.
At a Kremlin press conference yesterday, Putin and Viktor Yushchenko, his Ukrainian counterpart (disfigured after being poisoned, allegedly by Russian agents, in the run-up to the Orange Revolution) unveiled a last-minute compromise that would allow Russian natural gas shipments to Ukraine to continue. Russia's state-owned gas monoply Gazprom had threatened to reduce supply by 25 percent until Ukraine agreed to pay down what the company said was a $1.5 billion debt. It was not the first time Putin had used the bitter chill of winter to wage what could literally be called a "cold war"—Russia suspended wintertime natural gas deliveries to Ukraine two years ago, only a month after Yushchenko's Western-leaning regime took power after a disputed election. This winter's threatened reduction in supply had stoked fears of a shortage and price increases in Western Europe, where 80 percent of all natural gas imports, while en route from the Russian Arctic to lucrative Western markets, must first pass through Ukraine. The compromise, reached only minutes before a Russian-imposed deadline on talks, pacified Ukraine by eliminating the participation a Swiss middleman company from natural gas deals in exchange for Russia taking a 50 percent share in the Ukrainian natural gas market. Score one for Putin.