Like many others who once worked with an up-and-coming apparatchik called Vladimir Putin, Alexei Miller is a lucky man these days. A confidante of Uncle Vlad when he was a big wheel in the St Petersburg mayoralty, Miller is now the $5 million a year CEO of Gazprom, the state gas giant.
Far from being just some Kremlin placeman, he plays a fairly vital role – judging, anyway, by the executive toys they lay on for him. Last year, Gazprom offered £2.4m to anyone who could make Miller a bespoke iPad-style tablet – not a bling one made of gold, but one that let him scan all the firm’s key data securely while operating on the hoof.
Clearly, anyone who commands such special treatment from his IT department is a favoured son. Yet Mr Miller is lucky in other ways too. Last month, when America and the EU were slapping sanctions on the Kremlin’s inner-circle, he was high on the list of people tipped to be hit. But despite widespread predictions in Bild and elsewhere, he was mysteriously left off.
The reason, it seems, is that the list was designed to hit only those who were directly implicated in the Crimea invasion, either as decision-makers or as cheerleaders. But now that the dust has settled, Mr Miller is doing his own bit to turn the Kremlin’s thumbscrews on Ukraine.
On Tuesday, he abruptly withdrew the discount that Russia offered to Ukraine for its gas supplies, effectively doubling prices for ordinary Ukrainians. This was widely seen as a ratcheting up of Moscow’s long-running “gas diplomacy” policy, whereby prices have a curious habit of rocketing whenever Kiev irritates the Kremlin. And right now, of course, the Kremlin is very irritated indeed.
Of course, Mr Miller doesn’t see it like that. To him, it’s just a question of efficient book-keeping. No doubt consulting his fancy tablet thing, he pointed out on Tuesday that Ukraine already owed Gazprom $882 million in unpaid bills, and had a “dire” record in repayments.
But it isn’t as if Gazprom can’t afford to be flexible when it wants. The discount that Mr Miller withdrew on Tuesday was originally offered by Mr Putin back in December, as part of the deal that persuaded Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, to drop his bid to sign a free trade association agreement with the EU.
All of which is a reminder of how Gazprom is not just another company trying to stay in the black. It’s also a key tool of Kremlin foreign policy. And, unfortunately, it also supplies around 30 per cent of Europe’s gas needs – rising to 50 per cent in Germany. You can see now why the EU thought twice about sanctions against its CEO.
So, if sanctions aren’t an option, how might the EU persuade Gazprom to show Ukraine a bit of mercy? Brute force, as we’ve seen, is clearly not on. What the EU really needs, perhaps, is “man on the inside” in Gazprom. A sympathetic figure sitting on the board, maybe. A fellow European, ideally. Someone politically connected, just like Mr Miller.
Surprise, surprise, it turns out we do. Meet Gerhard Schroeder, the former German Chancellor. He walked into a £200,000-a-year job on the board of Gazprom just a month after leaving office in 2005, much to the outrage of many German politicians. Alas, since the Ukraine debacle began, he has firmly backed the Kremlin line. He even said recently that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was no different really to Nato’s intervention in Kosovo.
No matter that Nato only started bombing Serbia to stop appalling bloodshed. No matter that in Ukraine, there have been no credible reports of race attacks on Russians, unlike in Kosovo, where savage acts of ethnic violence took place on both sides. You might expect someone of Mr Schroeder’s stature to be aware of how ludicrous a comparison this is – indeed, his successor, Angela Merkel, described his comments as “shameful”. But apparently not.
So are there any other ways for the West to stop Gazprom acting as the Kremlin’s energy bully? How about, say, trying to embarrass the company by boycotting sponsorships and promotions in Europe? Wouldn’t it be handy, for example, if Gazprom had a sponsorship of a leading Premier League football club?
Ah yes, once again, we’re in luck. Chelsea FC, owned by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovic, currently has Gazprom as its “Official Global Energy Partner”, supplying it with all its gas and electricity needs (it also has commercial contracts to supply other businesses in Britain, in case you thought there was a special Chelsea pipeline from Russia).
So for any Chelsea fans who disapprove of Moscow’s bullying of Ukraine, here, perhaps, is a chance to make your point. You may have nothing against Mr Abramovic himself. But next time you go to Stamford Bridge, remember that the floodlights and dressing rooms are effectively powered and heated by the Kremlin. Never mind Up the Blues – it should be Up the Reds.