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Posted by: Steve LeVine on January 07
Russia has prickly relations with several of its neighbors, but all pale in comparison with its friction with Georgia and Ukraine. Last August, the former resulted in a full-fledged war, and pessimism about the security of the U.S.-backed oil and natural gas corridor connecting the Caspian Sea with the West. Now, the latter — Russia’s long antagonism with Ukraine — is provoking a similar recalibration of energy security, this time about natural gas supplies to Europe.
I have pointed out the pricing dispute that’s raised the temperature between Russia and Ukraine. But Ed Chow, whose activities in Russia on behalf of Chevron in the 1990s I recounted in The Oil and the Glory, thinks something more is afoot. Namely, Chow thinks the issue separating the sides is at least partly who personally stands to gain from a new deal.
Chow and Jon Elkind, another veteran of the 1990s diplomatic conflict with Russia over the Caspian as a member of Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, detail the underside of the Russia-Ukraine natural gas game in the latest issue of the Washington Quarterly.
The article notes the role of an opaque middleman company called RosUkrEnergo in the deal. We have discussed RosUkrEnergo at O&G; The Wall Street Journal’s Glenn Simpson has done the best ground-breaking work on the company. Half-owned by Gazprom and two Ukrainian businessmen, RosUkrEnergo is the equivalent of a maitre d’ who performs no principal role but controls access to the best tables. RosUkrEnergo owns no gas, or pipelines, yet earns a flat 20% take off the top of all the gas sold by Russia to Ukraine.
RosUkrEnergo takes that gas, and sells it. That amounted to a staggering $4.3 billion in proceeds to RosUkrEnergo in 2007, according to Chow and Elkind. How that money is divided has never been explained.
In a phone conversation, Chow notes that Gazprom and Ukraine at one point were just $15 apart in their negotiations — Russia was demanding $250 per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas this year, while Ukraine was offering $235. “If that was the only difference, why couldn’t they make a deal?” Chow asks. “I suspect the difference was the role that RosUkrEnergo would play.”
Chow and Elkind call RosUkrEnergo “shady.” “The company’s role is a political bone of contention in that an entity with no assets, no track record, and no transparency was placed at the very center of the Ukrainian gas economy,” they write.
Chow will discuss the issue on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR today.
Steve LeVine covers foreign affairs for BusinessWeek. He previously was correspondent for Central Asia and the Caucasus for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times for 11 years. His first book, The Oil and the Glory , a history of the former Soviet Union through the lens of oil, was published in October 2007. Putin’s Labyrinth, his latest book, profiles Russia through the lives and deaths of six Russians.