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Russia: Poland-Ukraine Pact Angers Moscow

Russia has been angered by an agreement between Poland and Ukraine that would bar Moscow from building a gas pipeline to bypass Ukrainian territory. The move may spur Russia to devise more aggressive plans for dealing with the problems of Ukrainian debt and the diversion of gas.

Washington, 27 July 2000 (RFE/RL) - Tensions with Russia are rising this week following Poland's decision to support Ukraine in its bid to keep Moscow from halting gas supplies to Kyiv.

The dispute between Russia and Poland emerged Monday after Warsaw rejected a plan to build a pipeline across its territory in order to bypass Ukraine, which relies on Russia for 70 percent of its gas. Russia has threatened to take action because of $1.4 billion in Ukrainian debts.

Last Friday, Polish Economy Minister Janusz Steinhoff announced that Warsaw would not agree to Moscow's plan for a new pipeline connection to Slovakia that would allow Russian gas to reach Western Europe while avoiding Ukraine.

After meeting with Ukrainian Energy Minister Serhiy Yermilov, Steinhoff said, "We do not want gas transit through Poland to harm Ukraine's interests," the Reuters news agency reported.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko responded angrily Monday, according to the Financial Times, saying, "Europe consists not only of Poland, but also of Germany, Italy, and France...this is an economic question which has to do with the energy security of Europe in the 21st century. It should not be resolved using political methods."

Russia's deep concern may stem from the implications of Warsaw's political backing for Kyiv. Yermilov, the Ukrainian energy minister, said the rejection of the pipeline plan was "a manifestation of a strategic partnership between Poland and Ukraine."

The statement may have come close to declaring a form of alliance against Russian interests and initiatives. That suggestion is likely to raise Moscow's sensitivities to new heights, particularly now that Poland is a member of NATO.

Some reports indicate that Russia is considering a plan for a pipeline across the Baltic Sea to bypass both Poland and Ukraine. In public, Khristenko said only, "There are several alternative directions for resolving this question."

While Khristenko's comments cited the energy security of Europe, the economic security of Russia may have been more on his mind. The transit pipelines across Ukraine deliver gas to much of the western and southern portions of the continent, but they also bring needed hard-currency income to the Russian government.

Ukraine has been accused of diverting gas from the transit pipelines since at least 1994. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma vowed repeatedly this year to crack down on the practice, but his promises seem to have little effect.

Itera, the marketing partner of Russia's Gazprom, said this week that Ukraine has diverted 10 billion cubic meters of gas since the start of this year. Recently, Gazprom officials charged that Ukrainian traders have not only stolen gas but sold it in markets where it competes with legitimate Russian supplies.

This month, Ukraine held unsuccessful talks with Russia on resolving the debt issue and reported progress in collecting its own fuel bills after passing an energy reform law. But Kyiv's credibility may be damaged by its dealings with Poland in order to keep Russian gas flowing across its territory, whether or not it pays its arrears.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko also flew to Ashgabat for talks on resuming gas deliveries from Turkmenistan, despite Kyiv's unpaid debt of over $300 million for gas supplied last year. Turkmenistan has reportedly agreed to provide gas again in return for Ukrainian investment in the country.

But even if Turkmenistan postpones payment in cash, it may find it hard to serve as an alternative supplier, since Turkmen gas can only reach Ukraine through Russian pipelines. Moscow could demand a debt settlement before it allows any Turkmen gas to pass. Ukraine's frantic missions to Poland and Turkmenistan may not give much confidence that Kyiv really intends to enforce discipline on its use of Russian gas or debt repayment.

The involvement of Poland may only widen the circle of distrust. Russia has already relied on Polish territory in building one section of a giant pipeline project to connect its Yamal Peninsula gas fields to Western European consumers. Moscow now wants to increase its transit capacity through Poland with a second line that would also serve as a detour around Ukraine.

But the government of President Vladimir Putin may now seek more aggressive ways to promote Russia's interests and reduce reliance on transit countries. If that is the result of Ukraine's agreement with Poland, it may soon be seen as a costly success.