Belmont Club

The Big Chill

European efforts to solve the Russian-Ukranian dispute over gas prices have stalled. According to the Times Online, hundreds of schools, hospitals and factories have closed, especially in the Balkans for lack of heating. “A senior US diplomat warned that Nato might have to intervene to help alliance members such as Bulgaria and Romania if the crisis drags on.”

Frantic efforts to restore gas supplies to millions of European comsumers failed today after Russia flatly refused to turn the pipeline back on.

A European Union plan to send monitors to both countries, agreed in principle by Moscow and Kiev as a way of breaking the deadlock between them, faltered at the 11th hour when Russia demanded that its own inspectors should be sent into Ukraine alongside independent experts. …

A senior US diplomat warned that Nato might have to intervene to help alliance members such as Bulgaria and Romania if the crisis drags on. “There is a commercial dispute at the heart of this, but this also has political overtones – we have seen Russia over time using such events to gain political leverage,” said US Ambassador to Nato Kurt Volker.

How exactly NATO would help was not explained. The Telegraph says the current EU President has characterized GAZPROM’s demand to send inspectors into the Ukraine in exchange for allowing EU inspectors into Russia as “blackmail”.

Alexandr Vondra, the Czech Deputy Prime Minister whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency attacked “completely unacceptable blackmail” in a dispute that has now hit two thirds of the Union’s members.

“We want supply returned immediately without anymore blackmailing,” he said.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President and German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined angry calls for Russia to resume supplies as gas shortages and heating rationing threatened to spread from Eastern to central Europe and beyond.

“The Russians must respect their contractual obligations to the Europeans,” said President Sarkozy.

Or else what? My guess is that or else nothing. With their economies hanging by a thread and facing restive publics, the politicians in the west are probably “risk averse” — paralyzed by fear. They will hang on, bluster and hope for the best. But they will do nothing. The Ukraine and Russia may eventually settle their differences when all the parties at the table are eventually glutted or impoverished.

But the political component of the “international system” is dangerously weak. Third rate powers have called the West’s bluff too many times for Russia to worry about it any more than Toto worried about the Wizard of Oz. Maybe we’ve already reached the point where the shriller the cry, the less intimidating it is. The era of ‘speaking softly and carrying a big stick’ has been forgotten in an age of word inflation. After all, when the greatest crisis facing humanity is Global Warming, what warning can be sounded for an encore?