IT cannot be said that Russia has entered into its year in the presidency of the G8 group of industrial nations with distinction. The clumsy handling of its dispute with Ukraine over the price of gas was bad enough but its wider effect has been to send shivers down the spines of every country in Europe which has allowed itself to become dependent on Russia for essential gas or oil supplies. When Tony Blair said in December that Britain must look afresh at the option of nuclear power stations because the situation has changed since the last evaluation only three years ago, is this what he had in mind? At one point in the stand-off with Ukraine President Putin was heard to say that the state supplier should not make a commercial matter into a political issue. But that is exactly what has happened and it will require castiron reassurances about future supplies before Western countries can rest easy in the knowledge that their energy supplies are not at risk at the whim of any Russian monopoly supplier or politician. That having been said, it is also necessary for the West to recognise how vulnerable Russia now feels to the fraying of its borders. The story has not yet been told of how it came about that the Ukraine's Orange revolution was able to sustain itself and eventually triumph just over a year ago. For instance, which outside organisations provided funds and know-how? To ask this question is not to belittle the bravery of the protestors or to suggest that they should not have acted as they did. But it is naive to think that Mr Putin will accept such setbacks to Russia's influence without asking himself how he can prevent further losses of the same kind. Against this background it does not seem unreasonable that an agreement made some years ago in one set of circumstances to supply gas at one-quarter of its market price should be subject to review when the relationship between supplier and customer has changed fundamentally. It has to be remembered that there is a sizeable part of Ukraine which favours continued close association with Russia and that elections are in the offing which Mr Putin may think he can influence in the way that the West influenced the last one.
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