Talks on the tender, which would be the first granted to a Western investor in Ukraine's oil-and-gas sector, took place on December 6 in New York on the sidelines of a business forum aimed at attracting U.S. investors to Ukraine. Negotiations are expected to end in January 2007.
Ukraine could net billions of dollars if the deal goes through. If signed, Ukraine would get at least 51 percent of the future profits from the production-sharing agreement (PSA). Enter Gazprom?
But there has been speculation that the negotiations have stalled and that Russia's state-controlled gas giant, Gazprom, may become Ukraine's partner in the project.
Ukraine's Fuel and Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko denied that the Ukrainian government is interested in Gazprom's participation.
"There are always topics of dispute when negotiating a project of such magnitude but I do not doubt that we will find a compromise," Boyko said. "The negotiations with our partners [Vanco Energy] have demonstrated that we are close to [a deal]. By the end of January  we will sign an agreement."
Vanco Chairman Gene Van Dyke also downplayed rumors of significant differences between his company and the Ukrainian government.
"I think there are only rumors, I've heard nothing of that from the official point of view, we've been awarded the tender and you've heard what the minister [Boyko] said. We're negotiating constructively to finish an agreement within the time allowed," Van Dyke said.
Vanco itself does not have the capacity to conduct seismic-exploration drilling at a depth of over 600 meters below sea level. Instead, it will hire subcontractors for the job.
"The type of terms we hope to achieve once it's agreed -- and it's not yet agreed -- would fall in the middle range of production-sharing agreements around the world," Van Dyke said of the project. "It will be certainly compatible with other agreements in what I would call 'frontier exploration areas' and 'areas of deep water,' which has additional mechanical risks and cost involved." Dogged By Perceptions
The tender is being negotiated for a period of at least 30 years with possible 10-year extensions.
But questions have been raised about Ukraine's business environment -- in particular, corruption.
Western investors are eying the Vanco tender as a test for Ukraine's commitment to liberalize its economy and to introduce much-needed transparency.
Van Dyke says that he doesn't see political risks because the contract is too big and too important for Ukraine.
As for Ukraine's high place on the annual Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, Van Dyke says that he sees no problem with that either.
"I'm aware of that, I've seen that index," Van Dyke said. "I don't feel the influence of that in this project. This contract has the advantage of being very large and very visible and very important to the government and to us, so, that adds transparency."
RUNNING HOT AND COLD The crisis over Russian supplies of natural gas to Ukraine that erupted on New Year's Day has implications that spread well beyond these two countries and will impact both economic and political policymaking throughout Europe. On January 19, RFE/RL's Washington, D.C., office hosted a briefing the examined the ramifications of the natural-gas conflict.
CLIFFORD GADDY, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, outlined Russia's "grand energy strategy," in which Ukraine is perceived as merely an obstacle frustrating Russia's energy ambitions in Western Europe and therefore a nonentity in Russia's broader strategic planning. According to Gaddy, Russia's strategic goal regarding energy is to maximize the role of its own energy resources in the world energy markets, so as to increase its geopolitical influence. To do this, it must reduce competition and maximize dependency on its own energy resources, as well as ensure a stable supply.
TARAS KUZIO, a visiting assistant professor at George Washington University, rebutted Gaddy's argument, claiming that Russia's actions evidenced a complete lack of geopolitical strategy and resulted in strong denunciations by Western countries and a loss of political allies in Ukraine. According to Kuzio, Russian President Vladimir Putin's desire to have a deal signed by the January 4 European Union energy summit outweighed his hope of reinforcing opposition to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko during the run-up to Ukraine's March 26 parliamentary elections.
RFE/RL Coordinator of Corruption Studies ROMAN KUPCHINSKY did not fully agree with Kuzio's assessments of Yushchenko or Ukraine. He outlined three major problems that are feeding the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The biggest, he argues, is that the state-controlled Russian gas giant Gazprom holds a monopoly on natural-gas sales outside the CIS. Kupchinsky also decried Ukraine's consumption of natural gas, terming it "out of control." Corruption is also a major factor in the conflict, Kupchinsky said, although the extent to which it taints the deal struck between Russia and Ukraine remains unknown.
Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 90 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media
Moscow's New Energy Strategy
Moscow And Energy Leverage
Russia's New Imperialism
Who's Afraid Of Gazprom? Controlling Gas Pipelines