Europe’s oil supplies from Russia were being held to ransom last night as the Kremlin fell into bitter dispute with a former Soviet satellite state.
Moscow abruptly halted millions of barrels of oil destined for the EU via Belarus in an increasingly hostile wrangle with its neighbour.
The move raised further questions over whether Western Europe can trust Mr Putin for its energy supply. Experts said that Russia had a deeply entrenched habit of manipulating oil and gas supplies as a substitute for diplomatic policy.
Russia’s strong-arm tactics have added resonance in Britain, amid persistent speculation that Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled gas group, will seek to buy Centrica, the British Gas group, which has 16 million gas and electricity customers in the UK. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, told The Times last night that Germany will use its six-month EU presidency to improve energy security on the Continent.
In her first interview with a British newspaper she signalled that she would take a harsher line towards Russia than her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, who is now on the board of a German-Russian consortium constructing a gas pipeline linking Russian gasfields with Western Europe.
Russia has taken over the chairmanship of the G8 group of nations for the first time.
It will provide President Vladimir Putin with an opportunity to emphasise Russia’s role in international affairs.
But some critics have said Russia is not a fit country to head the group, which brings together the world’s leading industrialised democracies.
Global energy supply is set to be a big issue, with Russia seeking to show the importance of its oil and gas reserves.
Mr Putin will want to emphasise to G8 members like the US, Japan and Germany, that their economies may be far bigger than Russia’s, but they need his country because it has enough oil and gas to keep them supplied for years to come.
WHEN Andrei Illarionov joined the Kremlin as an economic adviser in 2000, he and most of the Western world were convinced that Russia was finally heading towards a brighter, freer future.
For five years he advised President Putin and headed Russia’s negotiations with the G8, which Russia joined in 1997 as a reward for its liberal political and economic reforms.
But yesterday — five days before Russia takes over the rotating G8 presidency for the first time — Mr Illarionov resigned from the Kremlin, saying that his country was no longer politically or economically free.