Russian Gas Embargo on Ukraine Is Felt In E. Europe

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 4, 2009

MOSCOW, Jan. 3 -- The impact of Russia's natural gas embargo against Ukraine spread to several Eastern European countries Saturday, as a senior Ukrainian official warned of serious fuel disruptions across the continent in as little as 10 days if Russia refused to resume shipments.

Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary reported drops in the gas they receive from Russia via Ukrainian pipelines but said consumers had not yet been affected because of reserve supplies and extra Russian deliveries through other countries.

The European Union -- which gets a quarter of its gas from Russia, most of it through pipelines that cross Ukraine -- said it planned to call an emergency meeting as soon as Monday to discuss the crisis and urged "an immediate resumption of full gas deliveries" to the E.U. member states.

A similar Russian embargo against Ukraine in 2006 lasted three days, but chances for an early breakthrough this time appeared remote as Russia and Ukraine continued to accuse each other of engaging in energy blackmail and refusing to return to talks to resolve the politically tinged standoff.

Poland reported an 11 percent drop in gas deliveries from Russia via Ukraine, while Bulgaria experienced a decline of as much as 15 percent and Romania said shipments had slipped by as much as 30 percent, according to news agencies. Hungary said gas pressure had recovered somewhat after a fall of about 25 percent.

Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, cut off deliveries to Ukraine on Thursday, saying the former Soviet republic had failed to pay $2.1 billion in gas debts. Ukraine said it paid $1.5 billion but was disputing more than $600 million in late fees.

The two countries, hit hard by the global financial crisis, are also deadlocked over how much Ukraine should pay for gas this year, with Russia insisting on a sharp price increase and Ukraine countering with a demand that Moscow pay more to use its pipelines to send fuel to other European customers.

Delegations from both countries traveled across Europe seeking support Saturday. Russia, in particular, was working to fight the impression left by the 2006 embargo -- and by its war with Georgia in August -- of a bully trying to weaken the pro-Western government of a smaller neighbor.

"It is not us but Ukraine that is using blackmail, towards Russia and Europe," Alexander Medvedev, Gazprom's deputy chairman, told reporters after a meeting with officials in the Czech Republic, which holds the rotating E.U. presidency. "Instead of thinking about their own country, they are just playing political games, using the gas crisis for political purposes."

Medvedev blamed the gas shortfalls in Eastern Europe on Ukraine, saying it was stealing supplies meant to be delivered onward. He said that Gazprom had increased shipments using routes through Belarus and Turkey but that those pipelines did not have the capacity to make up the difference.

In a separate statement, Gazprom's chief executive, Alexei Miller, said the company would file a lawsuit with the arbitration court in Stockholm over the interrupted deliveries. He suggested European customers sue Ukraine as well.

Oleh Dubyna, head of Ukraine's state energy firm, Naftogaz, has acknowledged siphoning gas from shipments meant for Russia's other customers to maintain pressure in its pipelines. But another senior Ukrainian energy official, Bohdan Sokolovsky, on Saturday blamed the European shortfalls on Gazprom, saying the firm was sending less fuel.

Speaking to reporters in Kiev, Ukraine's capital, Sokolovsky said that if Russia continued to withhold gas from Ukraine, falling pressure in the pipeline system could trigger an automatic shutdown. He said Ukraine was already using its own gas reserves to maintain minimum pressure levels.

"In such conditions and in January temperatures, the system will automatically stop renewing pressure," he said, predicting "serious disruptions" in 10 to 15 days.

"It is obvious that this is political pressure on Ukraine," he added. "This is pure politics."

In a statement Saturday, Naftogaz offered to accept gas from Russia in exchange for the use of its pipelines to deliver supplies to the rest of Europe. But Gazprom immediately rejected the proposal, saying it was based on an unreasonably low fuel price.

Russia has refused to pay more to use Ukraine's pipelines, saying fees were fixed in an agreement that remains in effect until 2010. Ukraine has denied any such agreement exists.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company