Russia’s Christmas message to Obama: We will use force

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For the second time since the Barack Obama won the U.S. Presidential election, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued a none-too-subtle threat aimed at his soon-to-be American counterpart.

Medvedev — who is starting to make his patron, the former KGB apparatchik, Vladimir Putin, look soft — warned that Russia was prepared to use force to secure unspecified “interests” and appeared to link a contemplated Russian cutoff of natural gas supplies through Ukraine to Europe with fierce Russian opposition to further expansion of NATO.

As reported by Reuters:

In an end-of-year interview that signaled an uncompromising stance toward U.S. President-elect Barack Obama’s incoming administration, Medvedev said Russia’s war with Georgia in August showed that tough action was sometimes unavoidable. “Russia’s interests must be secured by all means available, this is my deep conviction. First of all, by international and legal tools … but, when necessary, by using an element of force,” Medvedev said in the interview, which was shown on Russia’s main television stations.

Further expansion of NATO membership is “inadmissible”:

In the interview, a transcript of which was posted on Medvedev’s official Internet site, he also attacked long-term plans by the NATO alliance to expand eastwards by allowing ex-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia to join.

“Today I do indeed feel an attempt to ‘put Russia in its place’. And if, sometime ago, when Russia was in a quite different situation, such attempts could still yield some results, in today’s situation….this is simply inadmissible.”

He threatened Ukraine with sanctions if it failed to pay some $2 billion Moscow says it owes for gas. Russia has said it may cut off supplies to its neighbor from January 1, potentially disrupting gas deliveries via Ukraine to European states.

The threatened gas cut off supposedly arises from a “contract dispute,” and Gazprom, the Russian gas supplier, claims that it will continue to deliver the “full volume” of gas destined for EU countries who receive the fuel from pipelines across Ukraine. However, the same assurance was given in January 2006 when Moscow cut off supplies to Ukraine using a similar business excuse. The result was, not surprisingly, that much of the gas never reached the EU, creating shortages of 20 to 50 percent in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria in the middle of a freezing winter.

Russia’s geopolitical aims were then and are now to intimidate Western-leaning people and leaders in Ukraine, reminding them who’s boss, and to warn the West to stay out of Russia’s self-declared “sphere of influence.”

Now, as a new administration prepares to take over in Washington, Medvedev is saying clearly if indirectly that Russia is prepared to fight — as it did in Georgia — to secure its “interests,” which unquestionably include an interest in binding Ukraine to Russia, whether or not it wishes to be bound.

As readers may recall, Medvedev first snarled at Obama the day after the American election when he ratcheted up Russia’s threat to station missiles near the Polish border, if the U.S. and Poland went ahead with plans to install components of an anti-missile system (designed to thwart Iranian intentions) on Polish territory.

To be sure, backed off his missile posturing the following week, and since has issued more diplomatic statements occasionally, expressing hopes for warm feelings between Russia and the new American President. Nonetheless, it’s impossible to view this Ukraine gambit, with the prospect of a January mini-crisis in central Europe over essential fuel, as anything but a deliberate effort to test Obama.

It’s not the only test the new White House team will face, but it’s not small potatoes. Russia may have its “interests” in reasserting control over what it calls its “near abroad,” but the U.S., the West, and not least, the Ukrainian people have an interest too — in moving Ukraine forward as the fully sovereign, prosperous and democratic nation it deserves to be.