Emboldened by its accession to the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe and to the presidency of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized nations, Russia has taken advantage of its place at the podium.
The most recent example came on June 2, when President Vladimir Putin met with the heads of some of the most influential media outlets in the countries belonging to the G8.
In outlining Russia's foreign-policy objectives ahead of July's G8 summit in St. Petersburg, Putin answered criticisms of the country's policies with critiques of his own of the United States, the European Union, and Japan.
Gas And Politics
"Our Western friends most actively supported the 'Orange' developments in Ukraine," Putin said, responding to EU assertions that Russia is using gas exports as political leverage vis-a-vis Ukraine. "If you want further support after all that has happened there, then [you] pay for it."
This sentiment was in keeping with that expressed during the Russian-EU summit in Sochi on May 25-26, during which future European energy supplies were the hot-button topic.
A major bone of contention at that meeting was the European Energy Charter, which would require Russia to grant freer access to its energy resources and energy-transit infrastructure. Russia signed the document in 1994, but has never ratified the document, arguing that state control and subsidies in the domestic sector are necessary to ensure that the Russian population and industries are supplied with enough gas to weather the country's harsh environment.
However, in Sochi, Putin took a tougher line than usual, introducing new arguments in his talks with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, and Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel of Austria, which holds the rotating EU presidency.
"If our European partners expect us to allow them into the holy of holies of our economy -- energy," Putin said at a news conference following the summit, "then we want reciprocal steps that help our own development."
He challenged the European leaders to come up with something to offer in exchange for the Russian energy supplies they depend on.
"Access to resources and transport? Where? Where's your extraction, where are your reserves? If this isn't there -- and it isn't -- then we want some kind of compensation," Putin said.
Russia's television audience later watched their president characterize the European Union as a child anxious to take a playmate's candy without having anything to offer in exchange.
Putin's comments served to heighten growing concerns about Russia's apparent readiness to use its energy export as leverage in meeting its foreign-policy objectives.
The first signs of Russian "energy imperialism" emerged in January, when Gazprom engaged in a "gas war" against Ukraine that saw Russia cut off supplies during a harsh cold snap.
The EU had reason to be concerned by the events in Ukraine, seeing as the state-run gas monopoly accounts for about 26 percent of its own gas supplies. In short thrift the bloc launched a search for alternative energy supplies -- particularly for natural gas.
By January, the EU had adopted a document on European energy security calling on its members to diversify their suppliers of gas, as experts in Brussels proposed that new pipelines be constructed from Egypt and Libya to Europe.
Putin (left) arriving in Algers in March (epa)
In an apparent effort to impede such efforts, Putin traveled in March to Algeria,
the third-biggest supplier of natural gas to Europe (after Russia and Norway) to float the possibility of creating a natural-gas cartel similar to OPEC.
On the eve of the Sochi summit, "The Washington Times" reported that Paolo Scaroni, chief executive of the Italian energy giant Eni, had expressed his concerns about the possible formation of such a gas cartel to the European Parliament. "We are increasingly dependent on a small number of suppliers," he was quoted as saying.
Fueling those fears, deputy Gazprom head Aleksandr Medvedev told an international energy conference in Berlin on May 26 that Russia rejects the Energy Charter in its current form.
In a nod to Russia's anger over perceived European efforts to block Russian companies' efforts to enter their domestic energy markets, Medvedev said that Russia and EU should sign a new document that would address the need for the EU to liberalize those markets. He also warned the EU that, should it fail to yield to Russia's wishes on this issue, Moscow would create "an alliance of gas suppliers that will be more influential than OPEC."
Following the Sochi summit, Kremlin-connected TV-Tsentr political analyst Aleksei Pushkov said EU leaders "were bewildered, and even outraged" by the Kremlin’s position, km.ru reported 29 May. Pushkov said that Putin is now trying to set up "a new format" of relations with European Union taking into account that demand for Russian gas is rising.
He noted that Russia has the option of selling gas to China and the United States. "Therefore, Europe cannot dictate its conditions to us," Pushkov said. "They will buy our gas in any case."
The rising disaccord between Russia and EU on energy has also widened the rift between Russia and the European Union in the humanitarian sphere.
Russia has long demonstrated its displeasure with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's (PACE) regular criticism of human rights violations in Russia, and of the Kremlin's policy regarding Chechnya.
On May 18, after meeting with PACE President Rene van der Linden in Brussels, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists that Russia had already fulfilled most of the humanitarian obligations it undertook upon joining the Council of Europe and didn't see any need for outside human rights monitoring.
Less than two weeks later, with Moscow hosting a PACE Standing Committee meeting for the first time as president of the Council of Europe, Van der Linden responded by telling Putin that Russia's presidency gives it the opportunity "to demonstrate that it is a full part of democratic Europe, as an equal partner."
Putin replied by offering assurances of Russia's determination to cooperate with the organization. But aside from such diplomatic niceties, Russia made it clear that it reserves the right to follow its own democratic path.
Lavrov told the PACE committee meeting that the democratic model imposed from outside simply does not work...in a country that has historically upheld standards different than those in the West, strana.ru reported.
Most observers saw the EU-Russia summit and the PACE committee meeting as dress rehearsals for the July G8 summit in St. Petersburg. And most agreed that the differences between the EU and Russia are not going to go away any time soon. In the meantime, Russia can be expected to continue to exercise its voice as head of the G8 and the Council of Europe.
However, its audience cannot be expected to sit quietly for long.
"As we get further from this date [of Russia's chairmanship of the Council of Europe], the pressure on Russia will be increased," Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Kostantin Kosachyov told kremlin.org on May 29.