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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 July 2006, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
Russia's energy wasteland
By Damian Grammaticas
BBC News, Moscow

The G8 summit of industrialised nations being hosted by Russia is likely to be more interesting for what it says about the West's growing reliance on Russia for its energy.

A chill breeze is whipping in from far out in the Arctic sea.

Nenets
Traditional lives go on here on the tundra
As it reaches land it whistles across the vast, flat and open tundra.

Up here, inside the Arctic circle, the sun shines for 24 hours a day in midsummer. But its rays are weak, the air still carries a cold tang.

Russia's far north, is odd, otherworldly, full of contradictions, harsh and fragile, inhospitable but fecund, teeming with life.

Nothingness

The tundra extends endlessly, all leached out colours, smudgy greens and browns, merging with the sky into a distant grey-blue nothingness.

At this time of year the top 30 centimetres of soil is a boggy mess, beneath it is permafrost, earth frozen all year to a depth of several hundred metres.

It is half land half water, bisected by river channels, dotted with ponds and swamps.

Clouds of ravenous mosquitoes descend on any living thing. They burrow through your hair to feed on your scalp.

If you fly above the tundra you can see vehicle tracks, criss-crossing it. Some are 10 years old, the vegetation is so fragile it takes that long to grow back after a car has passed.

And then more signs of human activity appear.

Scars across the landscape where pipelines have been laid. And finally small settlements, huts, drilling rigs and giant metal tanks clustered together.

They are scattered across the landscape like colonies on a distant planet. Everything built on raised foundations, above the level of the boggy land around.

Near each colony a cluster of pipes emerges from the ground into a giant tank. Each tank looks like an insect, squat above the ground, latched on to the skin of a host, feeding on its juices.

These are gas wells, tapping deposits a mile or two below the surface. Russia is moving fast to develop its Arctic territories, all part of a strategy to become the world's dominant energy supplier.

It has the world's biggest gas deposits and already supplies a quarter of Europe's needs.

But it wants to seize more of the European market, and capture consumers in Asia and the United States too.

World prominence

Having lost its great power status with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's aim is to return to world prominence not through military or political might, but by its control over energy.

When the G8 leaders meet in St Petersburg President Putin will demand Russia is again treated as an equal
In charge of one of the gas pumping units I found Georgi, a wiry, bearded man in his 40s. Next to us from a vent in a pipeline, gas was being burnt off. It was like a giant blowtorch, even 50 metres away you could feel the heat.

"Why are you burning all this?" I asked.

"We don't need it, it's the by-product of refining the gas," was the reply.

"But isn't it a waste, can't you use it?" I said. Georgi looked perplexed, lost for words.

"I guess we could use it, but we don't," he said eventually.

Russia has so much gas, it doesn't even care how much it wastes. This nonchalance is born of a sense that Russians hold all the cards today because they have the gas deposits the world needs.

When the G8 leaders meet in St Petersburg President Putin will demand Russia is again treated as an equal.

His economy may be far smaller than those in other G8 countries, Russia's commitment to democracy may be questionable but Mr Putin's belief is that his energy resources entitle him to a place at the top table.

Far to the south-west another set of pipes emerges from the ground close to the border of the European Union.

This is Ukraine, where much of the gas from the arctic is pumped into Europe. It's a totally different world. The Carpathian mountains rise nearby, green, forested, lush.

'Blackmail'

The pumping station is painted blue and yellow, the colours of the Ukrainian flag. Russia has already begun using its power as the world's energy giant.

Pipes at a gas storage and transit plant near Kiev, Ukraine
The Russians are not the first to play politics with energy
When it cut off gas supplies to Ukraine earlier this year Russia was trying to pressure its neighbour into handing over ownership of these pipelines. The Kremlin wants to control not just the source of Europe's energy, but the transport routes too.

In Ukraine's capital Kiev Ildar Gazizullin, a bespectacled, owlish man, an energy economist, was blunt.

"What Russia did to us, turning off the gas, was blackmail," he said.

So I asked: "If Russia wants to control the pipelines, should Europe be worried?"

"Yes," he said.

Back in Russia's arctic circle yet more gas workers were arriving by plane. Swarthy, weather-beaten workmen disembark alongside managers clutching laptop computers, briefcases, even copies of the Financial Times newspaper.

Out here, far from the world's eyes an energy revolution is under way.

And it's changing the delicate, fragile landscapes of the Arctic, and making Russia increasingly confident and assertive, demanding a new role for itself on the world stage.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 8 July, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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