Eastern Europeans Appeal for an End to Gas Standoff Between Russia, Ukraine

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 15, 2009

KIEV, Ukraine, Jan. 14 -- Russia and Ukraine continued bickering Wednesday over which pipelines should be used to deliver natural gas to Europe as the European Union gained access to control centers in both countries but declined to say who was at fault in the midwinter crisis that has disrupted heat and electricity in parts of the continent for a week.

As the leaders of some of the hardest-hit countries in Eastern Europe traveled to Moscow and Kiev to appeal for a compromise, Russia said Ukraine had blocked it from sending nearly 100 million cubic meters of gas to European customers through a pipeline route it has used for years.

Ukraine said the route could not be used without cutting off fuel to a large part of its own population because it had been forced to redirect gas flows in the network, drawing on reserves to compensate for Russia's refusal since Jan. 1 to provide it with fresh supplies. Ukraine offered an alternative route, and Russia rejected it.

The latest obstacle to resuming Russian fuel shipments through Ukraine -- which account for a fifth of the gas that Europe uses -- underscored the reluctance of both sides to yield even slightly in a dispute that has deteriorated from a fight over gas prices into an extended political standoff. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko have staked their reputations on the outcome.

Putin has clashed repeatedly with Yushchenko, who came to power in 2004 after the street demonstrations known as the Orange Revolution. The Western-leaning Ukrainian leader has angered the Kremlin by seeking membership in NATO for the former Soviet republic and backing Georgia in its August war with Russia.

Meeting with the prime ministers of Bulgaria, Slovakia and Moldova outside Moscow, Putin said Ukraine was abusing its control of pipelines and holding European countries hostage. Meanwhile, Yushchenko met with the Polish president in Wisla, Poland, and accused Russia of trying to seize control of the pipeline network.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev proposed that European leaders come to Moscow on Saturday for a summit on the dispute. Yushchenko endorsed the idea of a meeting but said it should be held in a third country such as the Czech Republic.

After complaining of problems a day earlier, the European Union said Wednesday that its observers had been granted full access to gas-dispatching centers in Russia and Ukraine but declined to draw any conclusions. The monitors were trying to persuade the two sides to agree on a pipeline route.

The bloc has tried to be evenhanded in blaming both countries for the dispute, reflecting the divided attitudes of its members. In a subtle shift, though, E.U. spokesman Ferran Tarradellas Espuny emphasized that Russia should restore full shipments of gas, as Ukraine has demanded, instead of asking to send limited amounts as it did Tuesday and Wednesday.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso called the situation "unacceptable and incredible" given that Russian and Ukrainian leaders had just signed an E.U.-brokered deal to resume fuel deliveries.

"We will see very soon if it is a technical hitch or if there is no political commitment to honor the agreement," he said, adding that he would urge European energy firms to sue if the standoff continued.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company