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Back To Square One In Russian-Ukrainian Gas Dispute

  • Ahto Lobjakas

A boy chops wooden pallets for heating in the suburbs of Sofia. Bulgaria is one of the countries hardest-hit by the gas cutoff.

A boy chops wooden pallets for heating in the suburbs of Sofia. Bulgaria is one of the countries hardest-hit by the gas cutoff.

BRUSSELS -- Officials from Russia's export monopoly made a prominent display of restoring the flow of natural gas to Europe via Ukraine early on January 13.

But by mid-afternoon, it was clear that shipments had yet to resume -- despite days of furious diplomacy and deal-making.

European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen told reporters in Brussels that EU observers on the ground have recorded no significant gas flows.

"The information that we have from our monitors in Russia is that little or no gas is currently flowing, and we are not, at this stage, jumping to conclusions as to why this is the case," she said. "But this situation is, obviously, very serious and needs to improve rapidly."

Senior EU representatives, led by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, insisted on January 12 that with the deployment of international monitors in Ukraine and Russia, all conditions for the immediate resumption of gas deliveries had been met.

This included meeting Russia's demand that its own monitors be given access to pipeline stations to ensure that Ukraine was not siphoning off some of the gas.

On January 13, the European Commission's energy spokesman, Ferran Tarradellas, said neither Russia's Gazprom nor Ukraine's Naftohaz allowed EU observers into the control rooms of their gas-dispatching centers.

Tarradellas said this was in contravention of the three-way agreement signed the day before.

On Again, Off Again

However, the bigger problem appears to lie elsewhere, and would have been apparent to the EU since early this morning, when Gazprom instructed a single Russian pumping station to start moving gas in volumes amounting to just one-quarter of the pre-crisis levels of 300 million cubic meters a day.

The flow at the Sudzha monitoring station was inadequate.
Russian officials said that amount was meant to be swiftly increased to normal supply levels, but only once international monitors confirmed that none of the Russian gas being transported through Ukraine has gone missing.

Russia has since accused Ukraine of blocking the gas shipments. It also continues to demand Ukraine pay for, or provide itself, the "technical" gas needed to operate the machinery which keeps the transit gas moving. This is something Ukraine has refused to do.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said his country had not blocked any gas shipments, but said his country's multiline pipeline system could not be controlled to direct flows along any one particular route, meaning lower delivery volumes along each of the transit lines.

Such explanations are cold comfort to residents in those regions who are now entering their second week without home heating, at a time when Europe is experiencing some of its coldest temperatures in years.

Deja Vu All Over Again

Frustration was in ample evidence at EU headquarters when the bloc's officials found themselves back to square one -- insisting the problems are a bilateral issue between Russia and Ukraine despite a week of furious EU diplomacy.

Tarradellas suggested the immediate target of EU anger is Russia, which did not start pumping gas at full volume this morning, as the EU had expected. "We are not happy that full volumes of gas are not coming back to the pipelines," he said.

Ahrenkilde and Tarradellas repeatedly said Russia must immediately start pumping as much gas as possible through all of its pumping stations serving Ukrainian pipelines.

The EU may yet find that the status quo ante in what some are already calling a "gas war" cannot be achieved until its underlying causes are fully addressed.

This, however, could take months, with Gazprom now threatening to sue Naftohaz for revenues lost since January 7, when it turned off the gas, and Ukraine unrepentant.
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