Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Russia Did Not Send Natural Gas to Europe Today

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 6, 2009; 1:37 PM
MOSCOW, Jan. 6 -- The flow of natural gas from Russia to Europe plummeted Tuesday, with several countries reporting a complete halt in shipments and others experiencing major reductions as Russia deepened its gas embargo against neighboring Ukraine in the middle of a winter cold spell.

Russia and Ukraine blamed each other for the sudden drop in deliveries, which caused supply disruptions as far away as Italy and Germany, but the two sides appeared set to resume direct talks later this week after six days of finger-pointing in a fuel price standoff with political overtones.

Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Turkey and the Czech Republic said gas shipments coming through Ukraine had stopped or fallen sharply. Germany, Europe's largest consumer of Russian gas, said deliveries had been "massively reduced" and predicted shortages if they were not restored and temperatures remained low.

The Balkans appeared hardest hit, with Croatia saying it was reducing supplies to industrial customers and Slovakia preparing to declare a state of emergency. Bulgaria, which relies on Russia for almost all its gas, said it was preparing to restart a shuttered nuclear reactor because it had enough reserves to last only a few more days.

Two Bulgarian cities were left without gas, including one on the freezing Black Coast in which 12,000 households lost central heating, the Associated Press reported. "We are facing a serious natural gas crisis in which Bulgaria is a victim of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine," said Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev.

After expressing reluctance to mediate while making reassuring statements about ample reserve supplies, the European Union condemned the sudden gas cutoffs as "completely unacceptable" and indicated it was considering a three-way summit with Russia and Ukraine as an "extreme option."

Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, blamed the shortfalls on "unilateral action" by Ukraine, accusing the former Soviet republic of shutting down three export pipelines and forcing Russia to cut deliveries to one-seventh their normal levels. "Ukraine alone is wholly to blame for the situation," said company spokesman Sergei Kupryanov.

Ukraine's state energy firm, Naftogaz, said it was Russia that halted deliveries through the three pipelines, adding that the total flow of gas from Russia plunged Tuesday morning to 73.8 million cubic meters per day, down from 315 million the previous day. "We did not turn anything off. There is simply no gas there," said Naftogaz spokesman Valentyn Zemlyansky.

Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko said the country was using its own gas to maintain pressure in the pipeline and keep deliveries to Europe moving. But he warned that Russia might suspend all shipments through the pipelines, which deliver one-fifth of the gas that Europe uses.

The reductions came a day after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered Gazprom to cut deliveries using the Ukrainian pipelines by as much as 20 percent, a move the Kremlin presented as retaliation for Ukraine's alleged theft of fuel meant for other countries after Russia stopped sending it supplies.

Bohdan Sokolovsky, the Ukrainian president's representative on energy issues, denied any theft and said Ukraine had enough gas in storage to supplement its own production and satisfy domestic demand into April. He accused Russia of trying to force Ukraine to accept a crippling price hike, and warned that the reduction could cause pressure in the pipelines to drop and trigger a shutdown as soon as next week.

Russia halted gas shipments to Ukraine on Jan. 1, saying that the country owed more than $600 million in late fees on overdue bills and that it had rejected a new contract raising prices for 2009 closer to what Gazprom charges other countries in Europe. At the same time, Russia pledged to continue pumping gas through Ukrainian pipelines for its other European customers.

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