What’s in it for Putin?

If there’s one mystery trumping all the others in the recent Russian-Ukrainian gas supply row, it is the one concerning the role and intentions of the Kremlin, particularly with respect to Vladimir Putin: Why fight a public battle over an issue that is almost as intransparent and complicated as the geological processes that created the gas in the first place? Veronica Khokhlova is trying to make some sense of the deal –

On the surface, it’s all clear and nice: they’ve reached an agreement, and we aren’t paying what Gazprom initially wanted us to pay. Europe can relax, too. But … it’s a complex deal. The Reuters piece [she cites on her blog] doesn’t mention Rosukrenergo as part of the scheme, an intermediary company that will be buying Russian gas from Gazprom for $230 and then selling both Russian and Turkmen gas to Naftogas for $95. A Gazprom affiliate and Austria’s Raiffeisen Investment AG own 50/50 stakes in Rosukrenergo, which, in a way, means that Gazprom will be buying gas from itself. Rosukrenergo is registered in Switzedrland, and Raiffeisen Investment AG has, allegedly, nothing to do with Raiffeisen Bank. Oleksandr Turchynov, former head of SBU and Yulia Tymoshenko’s man, launched an investigation into Rosukrenergo in summer 2005, but was not allowed to finish it.”

And Jerome at Eurotrib keeps arguing that all this is (simply) a matter of oligarchic infighting at the expense of the peoples involved (as they are paying significatnly higher energy prices than those paid by their countries/oligarchs energy corporations).

Be that as it may – the real question at hand is, as I see it, the following: did Russia/Putin want to appear weak in this matter, demonstrating to the west that he needs to do in Russia what he deems necessary (remember Yukos, the NGO law), or is the Kremlin/Putin indeed so weak that it has to accept oligarchic infighting to the extent of creating a foreign policy crisis, and that, as a result, the Kremlin needs to tighten its grip? Quite frankly, neither alternative is likely to make anyone happy.