MOSCOW, January 22 (RIA Novosti)
President Obama may visit Russia in April / U.S. invites Russia to cooperate in Afghanistan / Ukraine outdoes Russia in gas conflict / Belarus offers Russia, Europe gas transit solution /
President Obama may visit Russia in April
U.S. President Barack Obama may visit Russia as early as April, a source with close ties to the State Department told the newspaper. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might come to Moscow in March, to announce the new administration's decision to cut allocations on the ABM program.
The source said the new U.S. president would go to London on April 2 for a summit of G20 industrial countries on ways to deal with the current financial crisis, where he will meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for the first time.
The State Department said President Obama would attend a 60th anniversary NATO summit, to be jointly hosted in Strasbourg and Kehl on April 3-4, and may then fly to Moscow, just as President George W. Bush did last year, when he went to Sochi after the NATO summit in Bucharest.
A source in the Russian Presidential Executive Office said Obama's visit had so far not been officially agreed on. He said that if that information were confirmed, it would mean that the new U.S. administration indeed considers Russia a priority partner.
One of the key issues on the two presidents' agenda could be the drafting of a new treaty to replace the START I treaty on strategic arms reductions, which expires on December 5, 2009. Hillary Clinton said at the recent hearing in the Senate that it would be a key priority for the new administration.
The sides started consultations on the new treaty last December. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said then that the START talks would be definitely linked to the planned deployment of missile defense systems in Europe.
"The Americans' ABM plans have convinced us that these issues should be addressed as a package," Ryabkov said.
Moscow may like the new U.S. administration's stance on ABM, because the current top officials in the Defense Department are much more skeptical about ABM than their predecessors were.
William Lynn, a defense expert and former advisor to President Bill Clinton and Sen. Edward Kennedy, who has been nominated Defense Secretary Robert Gates' deputy, said the Pentagon budget, $180 billion, was excessive, adding that possible cuts could affect the missile defense system.
U.S. invites Russia to cooperate in Afghanistan
General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, winding up his visit to Pakistan, said that the United States, Russia and Central Asian republics had agreed to lay on additional supply routes for American forces in Afghanistan.
Although Russian sources think his remarks are somewhat overblown, the general's words could mean that the new U.S. administration is offering Russia to join in one of America's priority geopolitical projects - Afghanistan. In return, Moscow could hope for Washington's reciprocal gestures on such sore points as the deployment of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
"In addition to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Petraeus also visited Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, and practically everywhere he signed transit deals," said Andrei Serenko, an analyst with the Russian Center for Contemporary Afghanistan Studies. "Such deals will help the U.S. to lay on a new route - across the Caspian."
The new route provides for NATO cargo travelling via Georgia and Azerbaijan, across the sea to the Kazakh port of Aktau and from there through Uzbekistan to Afghanistan.
Moscow, however, is skeptical about Washington's plans, which Russia believes will lead nowhere.
"The status of the Caspian requires that all countries in the area, including Iran, must give their consent to such transit. Iran is unlikely to grant its go-ahead to the Americans," believes Mikhail Margelov, the head of the Federation Council's international affairs committee. "The Americans have only two options left - either Russian transit, or none at all."
The signals the Barack Obama administration is sending Moscow can well be interpreted as an invitation to cooperate on the key U.S. geopolitical project. Should this proposal be taken and successfully acted upon, Moscow could expect greater Washington sympathy for its concerns over a number of global issues. And then the Russian-American relationship could improve again. Their last honeymoon, it will be remembered, began in 2001 with something unprecedented - their cooperation in Afghanistan.
Ukraine outdoes Russia in gas conflict
The nearly three-week-long gas conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which forced half of Europe to freeze without Russian gas, the largest energy crisis since the Arab Oil Embargo against the West in the 1970s, has caused Gazprom a direct loss of $2 billion, the federal budget an over $700 million shortfall of export taxes, and Russia huge damage to its reputation as a reliable supplier of fuels.
The details of the new gas agreement signed in Moscow last weekend are not entirely clear. What is clear however is that the flat gas price fixed for the entire 2009 at $400 for 1,000 cubic meters Gazprom insisted on was replaced with a floating rate pegged on European gas prices, which are bound to plummet following the slump in the global oil market.
Other terms of reference have not been disclosed, such as quarterly amounts of Russian gas to be purchased by Ukraine. One could estimate though that with the 17 billion cubic meters of gas stored by Ukraine, a 50% increase in its own gas production, and falling fuel oil prices, the country could last the first quarter and even the first half of 2009 without buying expensive Russian gas at all. And by the end of this year, the price of gas for Ukraine might fall below $150.
As for transit fees for Gazprom, Ukraine is planning to raise them to a "European level" in 2010, although the level is not specified. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin cited $3.4 per 1,000 cubic meters per 100 km, while Ukrainian politicians said $8-$10.
The range of gas transportation fees used in Europe is broad, while Russia has no legal tool to assure itself a fair rate because it has not ratified the Energy Charter.
In short, Ukraine succeeded in linking the purchase price of Russian gas to the plummeting oil price instead of a fixed average price Gazprom planned, thus assuring itself the average 2009 price of $200 and obtaining a go-ahead for rising its transit fees for Gazprom indefinitely.
Is this what Gazprom has been fighting for, going as far as to cut off gas supplies to Europe?
Belarus offers Russia, Europe gas transit solution
Beltransgaz, the Belarusian state gas transportation company, on Wednesday repeated its proposal to Gazprom to build a second leg of the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline running from the German-Polish border to Nesvizh in Belarus.
However, analysts do not think the $2.6 billion pipeline will solve all the problems of gas shipments to Europe.
The throughput capacity of the second leg will be the same as the first, 33 billion cubic meters annually. Belarus said it could be built in a short time, in a year or 18 months, due to the developed infrastructure in place and technological solutions utilized during the construction of the first pipeline, providing for potential expansion. The second leg could carry an additional 23.5 billion cubic meters of gas a year to Poland and Germany.
Beltransgaz believes Nord Stream and South Stream will not be able to fully meet the growing European demand for natural gas.
Pyotr Klyuyev, an expert with 2K Audit-Business Consulting's appraisal department, said Belarus had earlier announced the Yamal-Europe-2 project as an alternative route to Nord Stream, a pipeline to link Russia and Germany directly under the Baltic Sea. Although certainly more complicated and expensive, the latter project would remove the biggest problem by arranging direct gas shipments from Russia to Europe.
"Yamal-Europe-2 won't solve the problems," he said. "While reducing dependence on one transit country, Gazprom will find itself vulnerable with regard to another one." Russia and Belarus have had gas conflicts, too, with a history of cut-offs.
Gazprom says it has increased transit via Belarus by 35.1 million cubic meters per day since the beginning of this year (up 25.5 million in Yamal-Europe and up 9.6 million in Beltransgaz's own gas transportation system).
Daily shipment currently stands at around 117 million cubic meters (about 42.7 billion cubic meters a year).
Ukraine carries to Europe 140 billion cubic meters of Russian gas annually. This year's plan is 120 billion.
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