Ukraine is one of Europe's most extravagant energy users, consuming four times more energy in relation to its gross domestic product (GDP) than the EU average. I've seen an example. When I arrived at my hotel room in Kiev, I found the air-conditioning running full blast and the bathroom heater toasting away.
Half of Russia's gas exports to the European Union (which cover 25 percent of the EU's consumption) pass through Ukraine. For years, Ukraine charged little for the accommodation, and in return Russia gave Ukraine a generous price break on the gas it bought for its own use. The arrangement used to mean very cheap gas relative to the price in Europe, and that cheap gas drove Ukraine's economy and provided, among other things, cheap electricity.
All in all, cheap is good, but it does encourage wasteful habits. Ukraine became one of the world's largest gas importers and one of its least energy-efficient countries.
Then, when relations with Russia soured in 2005 and Russia ratcheted up the gas price, Ukrainians struggled to afford the electricity they used to take for granted.
Disputes with Russia over gas debts and nonpayment started almost immediately after the Soviet Union collapsed. Ukraine worsened the conflict by stealing gas intended for Europe. The disputes were more than talking wars. Russia repeatedly suspended exports to Ukraine, several times leaving much of the country without heat or electricity in the depth of winter. Gazprom even closed the pipelines to Europe to keep Ukraine from taking more without paying up, leading to shortages in Europe in 2006 and again in 2009.
In mid-2010, a Stockholm arbitration court ruled that Ukraine's state-owned Naftogaz must return 430 billion cubic feet of gas it stole in 2009. Ukraine responded that the return would "not be quick."
To gain an alternative route for delivering gas to Europe, Russia is building the South Stream pipeline, which will run beneath the Black Sea. It is doing so despite Ukraine's insistence that it would be cheaper to modernize its existing pipeline.
For Russia, the topic of gas and Ukraine is both business and politics. Russia wants the revenue from keeping Europe warm in the winter. That means keeping the gas flowing through Ukraine at a tolerable cost in theft and price concessions to Ukrainian customers. Russia also wants the political leverage that comes with the power to shut off gas deliveries to Europe, an option that can be rendered ambiguous by the power of Ukrainians to push Russia to shut it off by simply not paying their bill. From Russia's point of view, a docile government in Kiev would be both a business and a political plus.
A presence in Crimea is critical to Russia's security.
Russia's Black Sea fleet has always been based in Sevastopol's natural harbor, for access to the Balkans, Mediterranean, and Middle East. After Khrushchev's 1954 transfer of the region to Ukraine, Russia leased back part of Crimea to ensure the continued use of the naval base. That lease is scheduled to run to 2042, and it authorizes Russia to station 25,000 troops.
There is an energy connection as well. Russia's South Stream pipeline passes through what formerly were Ukrainian waters, close to
Crimea. And there may be oil nearby, under the Black Sea, but that's a detail.
Every government is a protection racket. Citizens pay taxes and satisfy other conditions imposed by the government, and the government promises to protect them from other governments and from all the smalltime entrepreneurs in the theft and intimidation industries (common criminals). Protecting noncitizens who share the country's race, ethnicity, religion, or other group traits is a common government sideline. It's a marketing program; governments do it because it reinforces their legitimacy in the eyes of their own citizens.
For 15 million Ukrainians, about one-third of the population, Russian is the first language. They are concentrated in the eastern parts of the country, and in some areas, including Crimea, they are a majority. (See Figure 5.1 .) They are conspicuous candidates for protection by the Russian government.
The catastrophes that visited Ukraine in the twentieth century touched the Ukrainian-speaking population and the Russian-speaking population differently. The Holodomor, which killed millions, is remembered as an export from Russia. Collaboration with the Nazis, who accounted for more millions of deaths, was concentrated among Ukrainian speakers. Thus the possibility of mob violence or even civil war between Ukrainian and Russian speakers is at least plausible. The country has been getting a taste of such trouble since late 2013.
In politics, plausible is all it takes. The plausibility of intramural violence is enough to make it awkward for Putin to ignore pleas for help from Russian-speaking Ukrainians who claim they are under attack. That same plausibility is enough to provide propaganda cover for anything Putin might choose to do in the Russian-speaking areas, including an invasion.
It may seem fantastic to a North American reader that in 2014 Russia would fear an invasion by Western forces. The European countries are
Figure 5.1 Percentage of Ukrainians Who Speak Russian Natively
Source: Statistics Service of Ukraine (2001 census data).
largely demilitarized, and their populations are focused on enjoying risk-free lives as beneficiaries of the state. None of them has an appetite for combat at any level higher than a soccer riot. And the Americans, although they often seem careless about joining wars, never did come to direct blows with the Soviet Union, even when it was a mortal threat.
Call it historical post-traumatic stress syndrome. Twenty million Russians (one in eight of the total population at the time) died in World War II, and that wasn't the country's first experience with armies from Western Europe. Reasonable or not, the Russians want neutral countries on their border, countries that are aligned with no one (except perhaps Russia) and that are keen only about not giving offense. Topography adds special sensitivity to Ukraine's status; the country is an open plain for any force heading toward Moscow.
Russia doesn't want another country with strong ties to the West on its border that might join the EU or even become a missile-hosting member of NATO. Instead, Russia wants a Ukraine with strong ties to the East that serves as a buffer state.