With voting still going on in Ukraine - and results close between those who support the Russian-backed Viktor Yanukovich's bid to remain prime minister and those likely to pick the pro-Western, pro-NATO Yulia Tymoshenko - the Kremlin has predictably sent the energy giant Gazprom into the fray.
(With the last results trickling in, Yanukovich's Party of Regions led with just over 34 per cent of the vote, with potential coalition allies the Communists and the Lytvyn bloc together pulling in about another 10 per cent. Tymoshenko had just under 31 per cent, with President Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine movement, which has said it will back her as premier, receiving 14 per cent of the vote. The evolving dead heat can be viewed in a handy little graph on the main page of the Ukrainska Pravda website. A key remaining question is whether the Socialist Party of Aleksandr Moroz will cross the 3 per cent threshold needed to win seats in the Rada. If he does, that likely puts Yanukovich over the top.)
In what looks a lot like an attempt to influence the coming fight over who will be PM, Gazprom - which provides nearly all the natural gas used in Ukraine - yesterday to reduce supplies if by the end of the month it didn't receive some $1.3 billion it claims it's owed by the Ukrainian government. While Gazprom's business case may be entirely justified, the company has long coordinated its goals with the Kremlin (unsurprising, given that deputy prime minister and potential Putin successor Dmitriy Medvedev is Gazprom's chairman).
Gazprom, of course, denied that it's statement had anything to do with the election, but it looks a lot like 2006 all over again. Back then, Gazprom briefly switched off the gas right in the middle of another parliamentary election campaign, reminding Ukrainian voters that severing ties with Moscow came with a cost. Many credit the Gazprom cutoff with helping propel Yanukovich's unlikely political comeback after the disaster of the 2004 Orange Revolution.
Volodymyr Bronnikov, a parliament member with the Party of the Regions, made the connection Gazprom wouldn't. If Tymoshenko is prime minister, and her goal is to move Ukraine away from Russia and towards the West, then Russia is justified in charging Ukraine the same price for natural gas that it does other European countries, he said yesterday. (Ukraine, like most other former Soviet republics, currently receives discounted supplies from Gazprom, a holdover from the days of the USSR.)
"If Ukraine is an ordinary European country, then it must pay ordinary European prices for gas," Bronnikov was quoted as saying by The Moscow Times.
This one looks like a warning shot, intended this time for President Yushchenko himself. The message seems clear: make a grand coalition with Yanukovich (something one Ukrainska Pravda report suggested he was considering), and the last two years of your presidency will go relatively smoothly in terms of relations between Ukraine and its larger neighbour to the east. Put Tymoshenko back in power and the Kremlin will make sure it's a cold winter in Kyiv.