Roger L. Simon

Annals of the KGB

We had a Ukrainian cab driver from our hotel to SeaTac yesterday. Having visited his former country in the eighties and having Odessa blood in my veins (father’s side), I engaged the driver in conversation about recent doings in Kiev. Typically Eastern European, he wasn’t particularly optimistic about the new democracy in the Ukraine. “Maybe in fifty years,” he said. The big problem was their neighbor Russia. “They are KGB. Putin. All of them,” he continued. This, of course, was no shock to me, but I hadn’t realized at the time, heading for the airport on New Year’s Eve, what today’s news would bring from that part of the world where Russia has halted natural gas sales to the Ukraine.

When Russia’s state-controlled natural gas monopoly sets prices for the former members of the Soviet Union, it is sometimes difficult to separate politics from business.

Belarus, for example, is a key transit country for the Russian natural gas on its way to Western Europe. It does not have political friction with Moscow, and the Russians charge it only $47 per 1,000 cubic meters of that gas it buys for itself.

But Ukraine would be charged at the other extreme, under the Russian demand – $220 or more, the same as the wealthy gas-buying nations of Western Europe. Ukraine is one of two main routes for Russian gas flowing to Western Europe, but it has angered Moscow and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Viktor Yushchenko became Ukraine’s president last year after his supporters overturned a fraudulent election, defeating a Kremlin-backed candidate and pledging to turn Ukraine toward the West. Kiev hopes to join both the European Union and NATO. The other countries that once made up the Soviet Union are in a broad middle range of charges by the Russian company, Gazprom.