Gas & gangsters

Energy is the key to Europe's new relationship with Russia - and supposedly Moscow's weapon of choic

Scoops and shocks are thin on the ground in Moscow these days. As events of 2 March should confirm, elections are hardly nail-biting affairs, and nobody expects journalists to publish revelations about Vladimir Putin or his anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev, dallying with a lobbyist. So when police grabbed 61-year-old Sergei Schneider on Moscow's fashionable Arbat Street and bundled him into an awaiting Black Maria on 24 January, they also shook newsrooms across the Russian capital out of their torpor.

They weren't the only ones to register their surprise - eyes popped in law enforcement and intelligence agencies throughout Europe and North America when they learned that "Schneider" was none other than Semyon Mogilevich, one of the FBI's most-wanted on charges of money-laundering and racketeering. In the past few years, Mogilevich is suspected of acting as a pivotal figure in Russia's gas industry.

Getting gas out of the ground in central Asia or Russia to the homes of central and western Europe is an expensive and complicated business. And as capitalism emerged in Russia during the 1990s, it needed people to grease the wheels of mineral commerce. The big industry players needed energetic and persuasive fixers in order to ensure that they were paid their cut away from the prying eyes of any tax authorities or their competitors. Two companies, ETG and RosUkrEnergo, were consecutively given exclusive rights to negotiate transit deals for Russian gas travelling through Ukraine. They were widely considered the most notorious vehicles for this lucrative sideline to Russian organised crime's impressively diverse portfolio.

Details started to emerge in 2005 after the Orange Revolution brought Yulia Tymoshenko to power as Ukraine's prime minister. She ordered her then security minister to open a criminal investigation into these companies and specifically into Mogilevich's involvement with them. Later, the same minister asserted that Moscow connived in the successful movement to bring down Tymoshenko's government in order to prevent details about ETG and Mogilevich from being made public. Tymoshenko herself was threatened with arrest in Moscow on corruption charges.

Three years later, things have changed. Four weeks after Mogilevich's arrest in January, Tymoshenko pitched up in Moscow (charges and arrest threat long since forgotten) and announced that Ukraine had overcome its long-standing problems with Gazprom, Russia's state-backed energy behemoth, and negotiated payment of its outstanding debt to the company. Two days later she was happy to comment on Mogilevich's arrest: "As far as gas transit from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and other countries is concerned, we don't need any shadowy intermediaries," she said. "There will be transparency in our government and society. It also concerns energy policy."

Winner takes all

The ghostly presence of figures like Mogilevich around the gas industry has reinforced the impression that Gazprom and Putin are playing fast and loose with its energy resources. This has bolstered the thesis, which has become fashionable very quickly, that Russia and the west have returned to the days of a winner-takes-all ideological competition. Indeed, the past few months has seen publication of two books devoted to the subject, most recently The New Cold War, by the Economist correspondent Edward Lucas. The blame for this development is invariably placed firmly on Moscow's shoulders.

Perhaps after the uncertainties of the 1990s and the Twin Towers, there is a hankering to get back to the grand chess game between the White House and the Kremlin, with Europe as the battleground. Nevertheless, the warnings of those who subscribe to the thesis are stark: Putin's Russia is bent on stifling all domestic opposition and restoring the omnipotence of the KGB. But special attention is paid particularly to how Russia intends to use its gas supplies to western Europe as a weapon. A week ago, Matthew Bryza, the US deputy assistant secretary of state, spelled out western concerns, warning against the creation of monopolies in the energy industry. "We especially don't like them when they threaten at least the economic security of our most important allies," he said in an explicit attack on Gazprom, the energy company that symbolises the revival of Russian might.

The cold wind blowing in from Moscow is especially chilly by the time it hits London. The murder of Alexander Litvinenko, with its tit-for-tat expulsions, and the closure of British Council offices in St Petersburg and Ekaterinburg, suggest the Russians are revisiting the sinister romanticism of the Cold War.

Of course, Russia has a very different perspective on this. It suddenly has very powerful American radar systems being placed close to its border (and also hosted by Britain) under Washington's missile defence system; and it awaits in vain the extradition of Boris Berezovsky. Moscow first requested the extradition of this Russian billionaire and prominent Putin opponent on charges of corruption, money-laundering and racketeering in 2003. At first the Home Office refused Berezovsky's application for asylum but several months later Whitehall changed its mind. The only reason that a number of senior sources in Washington and London can give for this turnabout is that Berezovsky has enjoyed a close relationship with British intelligence. That angers the Russians, and goes a long way to explaining why Andrei Lugovoi, Scotland Yard's number-one suspect in the Litvinenko murder, continues to enjoy the full protection of the Russian state. However, the arrest of Mogilevich in order to smooth the path of the Ukrainian gas deal suggests a pragmatism on Russia's part that is often overlooked in Britain. In important respects, the fate of Mogilevich is much more significant than Lugovoi's.

Co-operation, not confrontation

Elsewhere in the European Union, a different picture is emerging where the emphasis in relations with Moscow is placed on co-operation, not confrontation. Germany's economic links with Russia are expanding with the explicit backing of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nicolas Sarkozy started his presidency by securing a huge deal for Total to develop the Shtokman gas field in the Barents Sea in a deal with Gazprom that Putin personally approved.

Energy is the key to the new relationship with Russia and supposedly Moscow's weapon of choice in its plan for European domination. Yet this assumption ignores a more fundamental reality: the European Union currently consumes 480 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas a year and that is set to rise to about 600bcm by 2020; Russia can provide most of that need either with its own gas or by transporting Turkmen and Kazakh gas. There is no better customer for Russia than the European Union. Gazprom is also developing its markets in Japan and China but the EU remains by far the most lucrative and reliable consumer. Why would the Russians seek to promote a conflict with its best revenue stream? The converse is true - given that the alternative supplies to the EU come from Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East, there is no better supplier for the EU than Russia.

Such is the fear of Russia's dominance of the EU gas market that, for several years, a European consortium has been attempting to diversify its gas suppliers. To lessen the dependency on Russian gas, and with American support, the EU came up with Nabucco, a gas pipeline that would bring supplies from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iran across Turkey and into the Balkans. But last summer President Putin managed to scupper this by persuading the Kazakhs and Turkmens, without difficulty, to sell their gas to Gaz prom instead, knocking the stuffing out of the Nabucco plan overnight. American sanctions on Iran did the rest.

Already signed up

More recently, Bulgaria and Serbia have signed up to Gaz prom's alternative to Nabucco called South Stream which will bring 30bcm of gas from Russia under the Black Sea. But before the new cold warriors raise the alarm, it is worth remembering that this is not a Russian monopoly - ENI, the Italian energy giant, owns 50 per cent of South Stream while Austria's OMV and Hungary's MOL have recently signed deals with Gazprom despite their involvement in Nabucco.

Ironically, Nabucco looks as though it might be saved by the intervention of Gazprom. The Russian firm has said it will consider diverting some of its gas away from South Stream and into Nabucco - after all it all makes money.

To the north, Germany and its former chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, are enthusiastic participants in the Nord Stream project that will bring gas to Germany direct from Russia across the Baltic Sea. Schröder, who actually chairs the consortium building the pipeline, dismissed the objections of Poland and Ukraine who detected a Russo-German plot (familiar from their histories) to squeeze the two countries out of the lucrative transit market. Brussels is trying desperately to fashion a coherent pan-EU policy on gas supply to head off disputes within the Union over access to Russian gas. But so far the needs of individual countries, whether large like Germany and Italy or small like Bulgaria and Hungary, have been decisive in determining the course of pipeline politics.

The new Russia knows how to exploit internal European squabbles to its advantage. In the old days, the Soviet Union was run by a gerontocracy clinging to the ideology of communist state power. These days the young energy advisers around Putin have Harvard MBAs and perfect English - they are not driven by ideology, but by money and market share.

The resurgent Russian state and its repressive mechanisms are distasteful and a matter of real concern. It is important to remember that while we in the west made hay in the 1990s, the Russians faced chaos and economic misery. Their introduction to capitalism, inspired by oligarchs like Berezovsky, was deeply unhappy, and it is essential to take this into account when assessing Putin's growing authoritarianism. This may not yet amount to the rule of law but for most Russians it is an improvement on the rule of gangsters that preceded it.

Clearly the deployment of missile defence and the recog nition of Kosovo confer a sense of Cold War panic on proceedings, but that should not obscure the fact that gas and oil are the substances underpinning Europe's relationship with Moscow. If this mutual dependency were handled properly (a big if), both sides should benefit in equal measure. The relationship between Russia and the west is driven not by the old Cold War ideologies but by the carving up of profits. If, however, we start guiding our policies by the new Cold War thesis, this may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Present circumstances would look benign by comparison.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters

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Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood