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Are The EU's Russian Gas Deliveries Eternally At Risk?

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) wrote to the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, to warn him of "emerging risks" in the stability of gas supplies. (file photo)
BRUSSELS -- This time, at least, the warning came early.

On May 26, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wrote to the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, to warn him of "emerging risks" for stable gas supplies to Europe during the winter ahead.

The letter, seen by RFE/RL, suggests that Ukraine's mounting economic crisis may sooner or later lead to additional cutoffs to consumer nations further west.

Kyiv’s underground gas-storage facilities have become depleted as the country struggles to service domestic demand. And it is not at all clear that Ukraine has the $4.2 billion it needs to pump 19.1 billion cubic meters of gas into them before winter begins.

The gas giant Gazprom has confirmed it has received Ukraine's May gas payment in full -- which Ukraine put at some $647 million.

But officials in Brussels say the payment will only give Ukraine a brief respite before the next bill comes due in early July. In the meantime, preparations for winter storage remain barely under way.

Forming A 'Pool'

Russia has repeatedly warned that Ukraine does not have the financial wherewithal to pay its bills, and that Europe could be the one to suffer if and when Kyiv comes up short.

Noting Ukraine's storage facilities play a key role in ensuring disruption-free gas transit, Putin, in his letter to Barroso, suggested that Russia and the EU form a "pool" to provide Ukraine with credit.

A series of phone calls between Putin and Barroso followed. On June 9, a team of EU foreign policy officials and gas experts left for Kyiv and Moscow to study the options.

Needless to say, any disruptions along the Ukrainian supply route have the potential to hurt the EU. The bloc ships one-quarter of the gas it consumes from Russia; Ukraine is responsible for 80 percent of those transit imports.

The global financial downturn means that money is tight not only for Ukraine, but for Russia and the EU as well. So tight, in fact, that Brussels may play financial calculations above geostrategic ones in future dealings with Ukraine -- meaning no EU credits may be forthcoming for Kyiv.

'Asked To Pay Twice'

A discussion paper prepared by the EU's Czech Presidency for a meeting of the EU energy ministers in Luxembourg on June 12 -- seen by RFE/RL -- puts it in stark terms.

The paper argues that as the EU already has binding contracts guaranteeing delivery of gas at its border, it should not be "asked to pay twice." It also warns against "short-term fixes" and advises EU unity and preparations to switch to alternative fuels where necessary.

With cash-strapped Ukraine between a rock and a hard place, and Russian gas -- by the EU's admission -- "vital" for one-third of its member states, Moscow's early warning looks like a preemptive attempt to shift blame.

At the start of his letter, Putin evoked the "spirit and the letter" of the early warning mechanism between Russia and the EU created in 2007 to prevent energy shutoffs by monitoring energy supplies from Russia.

That mechanism, however, singularly failed to prevent the crisis in January. And the EU, which sought to upgrade the agreement at its Khabarovsk summit with Russia last month, walked away empty-handed.