As you might expect, I’ve been very attentive to the civil unrest in Ukraine in recent weeks. I made a lot of friends while on my cleantech tour there a couple months ago, so I’ve primarily been concerned for them and their futures. Additionally, the country is right next door to where I currently live, Poland. There have been clear implications that the whole drama is related to energy matters, so I think it’s finally time for me to comment on that here on CleanTechnica. But connections there tell me that the story is actually not as simple as it seems. So, below is a little perspective on how dirty energy codependence could be a major instigator in the controversy over there, as well as a bit of counter-perspective on why that might not be the main issue.
To start with, if you’re not up to date with it all, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych promised for years to sign political and trade agreements with the European Union — it was actually an important part of the platform on which he ran for office — but he actually decided in November to not sign these agreements. This sparked tremendous civil unrest, which has resulted in mass protests in the central square of Kiev (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) and elsewhere, followed by very visible police brutality and citizen injuries. The citizen uprising has been termed Euromaidan. At an event in November aimed at getting Yanukovych to keep his pledge and sign a key agreement on November 29th, 350,000 people reportedly showed up in Maidan. On December 1st, the number reportedly totaled around 1 million as the populous came out to show their disappointment with his decision. Today, a call for a “March of a Million” in Kiev reportedly brought out well over a million, perhaps 1.5 million according to my sources.
Many Ukrainians say they regard the country’s political leaders since the end of the Soviet era to be a collective failure. At the same time, they say they recognize the constraints of being almost entirely dependent on Russia for energy, especially natural gas for heat, as well as the historic burden of being home to vital Russian military assets, including major installations for its Black Sea fleet.
“The foundation has to be completely changed in our country, so that it would not remain a post-Soviet barrack temporarily repainted in yellow and blue,” Mr. Lutsenko told the crowd, referring to the colors of the country’s flag. “We have to understand that not only the president has to be changed but the entire system.”
Natural gas imports from Russia serve a basic need for Ukrainians. Oil imports are also considerable. This makes it very difficult for Ukraine to not be subject to the interests of Russia. Kiley Kroh of Climate Progress on Friday noted how natural gas may have led Yanukovych to change course on Ukraine’s EU plans:
In October, Russia complained that Ukraine owed $882 million for gas delivered in August. “Ukraine, which pays around $400 per 1,000 cubic metres of Russian gas, one of the highest prices in Europe, has asked Moscow to ease terms it considers excessive and unaffordable for its debt-strapped economy,” Reuters reported at the time. As the date for signing the EU agreements neared, Russia warned of economic catastrophe and civil unrest if Ukraine signed the accords and offered an alternative: join our customs union instead.
Ukraine has long been dependent on natural gas from Russia and that dependence has been a key source of strife between the two nations for several years. Russia has raised the price it charges Ukraine for gas several times and has been known to shut off gas supplies, even in the middle of winter, over payment disputes. Complicating the tug-of-war over Ukraine even more, Ukraine controls the pipeline that transports Russia’s natural gas to the rest of Europe — with Europe currently dependent on Russia (and Ukraine) for 40 percent of its natural gas.
In an attempt to lure Ukraine toward its union of former Soviet republics and away from the EU, Russia offered something it knew its neighbor needed: cheaper gas prices. “No one other than Russia can provide Ukraine with the necessary funds so quickly and in such a quantity,” Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov told Bloomberg News. “A gas agreement could help relieve Ukraine of a huge problem. We can also give them a loan, but we will not help them without commitments on their part.”
I would urge you to take special note of that section in the first paragraph regarding the high price Ukrainians pay for natural gas from Russia. (Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov actually says that the higher charges come to $20 billion in overpayments over the course of only three years.)
In case you are not aware, Ukraine’s wealth is very polarized, with the “middle”class getting poorer as the richest get richer. The basics of life — housing, energy, and food — take up a much greater portion of the average family’s budget than in the US, Western Europe, or even neighboring Poland. This cripples economic growth, stifles the ability of common people to move up the economic ladder, and simply makes survival more difficult. The high gas payments are a great harm to the country, yet Ukraine is almost powerless when it comes to the price it has to pay. This is all akin to an abusive domestic relationship in which the abused feels she cannot get out of her relationship due to her dependence on the abuser.
Clearly, with greater energy independence through the use of renewable wind and solar resources, Ukraine could have been in a much better place than it is in today. And it could get to a more independent, stronger, safer place through the future development of wind power and solar power.
Indeed, I was told while touring Ukraine’s largest solar PV power plant (the largest in the world when it was completed in 2011) that Activ Solar power plants in Ukraine (which total over 400 MW of capacity) had already saved Ukraine over $3 billion in Russian oil and gas imports.
The country has some wonderful wind and solar resources that it could use to gain tremendous energy independence (and, thus, greater political independence). In some ways, such as through quite aggressive feed-in tariffs for solar power, it is stimulating development in that arena. However, as with nearly every country on the planet, it could be doing much more.
But this is not the full story. A Ukrainian cleantech expert tells me that the situation is not as simple as a dependency on Russian natural gas. From this anonymous source:
My personal opinion is that everything that is happening here is not connected with our dependence on fossil fuels from Russia. Though the pressure from Russia takes place, the main reason is still the desire of our President to hold everything in his own hands, or as it is said here, in his ‘family.’ (His son became a billionaire in a couple of years while the country is getting bankrupt.) And it’s his game against democracy, legal rights, justice courts, etc. — everything which is to be in EU countries and which won’t let him take into his pocket the rest of Ukrainian assets… Euromaidan is not about Europe only. It is about freedom and dignity…
Clearly, the story is complicated, and the biggest issue may be corruption within the halls of Ukraine’s presidential offices, but even if that is the case, the dependency on dirty energy from Russia certainly amplifies the problems, while creating many other economic problems for the country of yellow and blue. Ukraine could certainly be much better off economically and politically with greater energy independence — greater reliance on the sun and the wind, which will never try to bully the country for political gain — and I hope that is a lesson that millions of Ukrainians learn from Euromaidan.
Read more cleantech-related Ukraine news on our Ukraine channel.
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