Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last night urged Europe’s gas companies to help pay to get supplies back on track.
With deadlock continuing in Russia’s dispute with Ukraine over unpaid bills, Mr Putin wants the firms who get Russian gas to form a consortium to cover costs which Ukraine says it cannot afford to run the system to send it.
The audacious idea came after talks in Moscow with the head of Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom gas supply company, and at the end of another day in which Gazprom says Ukraine refused to transit Russian gas to Europe through its export pipelines.
Mr Putin says if the consortium dips into their own pockets it would speed the resumption of much-needed gas supplies.
Only on Wednesday the European Commission urged the same firms to take legal action against Russia and Ukraine for breaking gas supply contracts.
A quarter of EU gas come from Russia, and 80% of that quarter goes via Ukraine.
A dozen EU countries have been hit in the midst of sub-zero temperatures in central Europe, but diplomatic efforts led by the European Commission have failed to reopen the gas taps.
Last night the stumbling block remained who should pay for the “technical gas” required to power the compressors to pump Europe’s gas through the pipeline system.
Russia says the responsibility rests with Ukraine, but Kiev refuses to budge.
Aware of mounting anger in Brussels and the risk of long-term reductions in EU demand for Russian gas if the problem continues, Mr Putin said his plan was now the best way of getting supplies flowing as soon as possible.
As the suggestion was being made, EU ambassadors were meeting in Brussels to consider what steps to take next. A statement said: “The situation is damaging the credibility of Russia and Ukraine as reliable supply and transit countries. This situation will have significant financial, economic and political consequences for both countries.”
Prime Minister Gordon Brown last night held talks at 10 Downing Street with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, at which the Mr Brown promised to work closely with his counterparts in the EU and Russia to help resolve the dispute.
Following the meeting, a Downing Street spokesman said: “The prime minister stressed the need for an urgent resolution to this problem, which is causing severe economic and social difficulties in a number of EU countries.
“The prime minister reaffirmed his support for the efforts of the presidency of the European Union and the Commission President (Jose Manuel) Barroso in trying to find a resolution to these issues, and said that he would continue to work closely with his counterparts in the EU and with Russia to help resolve this dispute.”