Russia Wins Round 2 of Gas Fight

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The new year started in a familiar fashion with Russia and Ukraine in a brawl over payments for Russian gas and Europe seeing its gas deliveries siphoned off by Ukraine.

Since this New Year's drama has been going on since 2006, it is no surprise that the Kremlin has learned a thing or two about how to handle the PR effort to sell the Russian story to the international audience.

During the gas crisis of 2006, Moscow moved very slowly to provide information and its own interpretation of events, as Ukraine started to siphon off European gas after failing to agree to a new gas delivery contract. It took days and even weeks to get Moscow's story out that putting an end to unjustified energy subsidies to Ukraine was the right thing to do as a matter of international trade. It was even a Russian commitment to the European Union as part of the WTO membership negotiations. It also sent a clear signal that Moscow was treating Kiev as a truly sovereign and independent nation.

In 2006, Russia failed to warn Europe properly of the looming clash with Ukraine over gas prices, so it came as a shock to the unsuspecting Europeans when the spigot was turned off. As a result, the Kremlin was instantly accused of "using the energy weapon." Information about the Russian position subsequently emerged in bits and pieces, message coordination was poor, initiative was lost and media outreach was dismal, with the highest Russian representative being Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller (not a very effective public communicator) because the government was largely on vacation. In short, Moscow looked confused, defensive, inconsistent and inept.

No longer. The Kremlin and Gazprom have learned the importance and tricks of savvy PR. The difference with 2006 could not be starker. This time around, Moscow began the information offensive well in advance, way before it became clear that it was again on a collision course with Kiev over gas prices.

In November, Moscow launched a well-orchestrated campaign to inform Europe about a possible collapse of gas talks with Ukraine. Gazprom and the Russian government provided daily updates of information on the status of talks over debt repayment, making it clear how this might affect the future of gas deliveries to and through Ukraine.

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By December, when it became clear that Ukraine was likely to provoke a crisis by disrupting supplies to Europe, top Gazprom officials, including Miller, went on an offensive in Western media. Gazprom deputy head Alexander Medvedev, one of the country's best communicators, was dispatched to tour European capitals to deliver Gazprom and the Kremlin's side of the story.

Gazprom acted preemptively by inviting Britain-based SGS, a leading energy auditing company, to its gas pumping installations at the points of entry and exit from Ukraine, providing early documented proof of Ukraine's wrongdoing. Gazprom also wasted no time in filing a legal complaint with the Stockholm Arbitration Court against Ukraine's Naftogaz for breach of the gas transit contract.

During this year's crisis, message coordination was good. It was clear that all Russian spokespeople on the issue were reading from the same script. Emphasis on the commercial nature of the dispute was timely shifted to Ukraine's breach of contractual obligations as a transit country, including under the Protocol of the European Energy Charter to ensure uninterrupted Russian gas deliveries to Europe under any circumstances. Discussion of the need for alternative energy routes bypassing Ukraine, like the Nord Stream and South Stream pipelines, has been reinvigorated as more prominent European politicians endorsed the proposals.

It was also a big diplomatic coup for Russia to drag the EU into direct mediation and monitoring of Ukraine's fulfillment of its transit obligations. This immediately made Ukraine look like the chief culprit and forced Kiev to come up with bizarre explanations that only reinforced the sense of Ukraine's culpability.

Media outreach efforts by Gazprom and the Russian government were preemptive and proactive. Information was provided in a continuous stream with copies of crucial documents -- like the gas transit contract or abstracts from Gazprom's official correspondence with Naftogaz -- readily available to Western media. Media venues with key Gazprom and Russian government officials were arranged quickly, culminating in a fantastic performance delivered by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at his meeting with European reporters late last week.

Indeed, this time around, Putin himself became the principal spokesman for the crisis. This had the immediate effect of drawing media attention to Russia's side of the story. There are few politicians in the world who could rival Putin for the command of the detail and the ability to put complex issues in the plain language of sound bites. President Dmitry Medvedev played the appropriate backstage role of someone who ultimately looks after the country's vital interests while delegating authority for hands-on crisis management.

The investment in sophisticated PR capabilities paid off. During "Ukrainian Gas Crisis -- 2009," few Western newspapers and television programs described Russia as a bully wielding its "energy weapon" and trying to bring down a burgeoning Ukrainian democracy. There are, however, many more stories decrying Ukrainian chutzpah and accusing Ukrainian leaders of exploiting European energy vulnerabilities for settling their own political scores.

It looks like Russia won this one for sure.

Vladimir Frolov is president of LEFF Group, a government relations and PR company.