Russia shut off all gas supplies to Europe through Ukraine yesterday, leaving tens of thousands of people in more than a dozen countries without heat during a winter cold snap.
The effects reverberated across the continent, where some countries have substantial reserves and others do not.
In the Balkans people celebrated Orthodox Christmas in churches lit by candles and struggled to find other sources of heat for their homes as authorities cut off some gas to conserve supplies. Schools in Bulgaria closed because utilities needed time to switch to alternative fuels. In Bosnia gas operator Sarajevogas said the situation was close to a humanitarian disaster.
Romania, Bulgaria and other countries held national security meetings to address the issue, while Hungary and Slovakia, which receives all of its gas from Russia, began reducing natural gas deliveries to big industrial customers.
Russia’s gas monopoly Gazprom, which sharply limited supplies through Ukraine yesterday, stopped all remaining gas shipments through the country at 0544 GMT yesterday.
Russia confirmed the cut-off, but said it was Ukraine’s fault because it had shut down the last pipeline carrying gas from Russia. Gazprom also said it is reducing supplies to compensate for the gas it accuses Ukraine of diverting.
About 80% of Russian gas to Europe is shipped through pipelines crossing Ukraine. Other smaller pipelines run through Belarus and Turkey.
Nations including Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Turkey all reported a halt in Russian gas shipments. Others – including Austria, France, Germany, Hungary and Poland – reported substantial drops in supplies.
Norway, another big gas supplier to Europe, said it cannot do much to offset shortfalls in Russian deliveries as it is near maximum production and pipeline capacity for exports.
Russia stopped all gas shipments to Ukraine on January 1 after the two countries failed to agree on prices and transit fees for 2009. Gazprom also insists that Naftogaz still owes £396million ($600million) for 2008.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso hit out in phone conversations with Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Yuliya Tymoshenko.
Mr Barroso, increasingly concerned at the impact of reduced supplies on EU member states, said he wanted an immediate resumption of full services and said the credibility of both Russia and Ukraine as “reliable” EU partners was now at stake.