Russian gas has only one route now to Western Europe: through Ukraine. The Ukrainians have used their controlling position to siphon off an estimated 3 billion cubic meters of gas a year and run up cumulative arrears with Russian gas supplier Gazprom that approach $2 billion.

But Ukraine’s position as the unique transit country will end when a new pipeline from the Siberian Yamal gas fields to the Polish-German border opens next year. This $36 billion pipeline runs through Belarus, not Ukraine. The section of the line that runs 130 miles from central Belarus to Poland was commissioned last week. The 228-mile section from the Russian border to central Belarus is under construction, with Gazprom paying Belarusan contractors to do the job.

Ukraine’s leverage with Gazprom will diminish rapidly as the new line expands its capacity. By 2005, when all the compressor stations are fully operational, the line should be able to pump 68 billion cubic meters a year. That lends urgency to Ukraine’s search for alternate sources of gas, and to efforts by Ukraine’s Western friends to ensure that Caspian and Central Asian gas and oil can find their way to Ukraine without passing through Russia.