Russia raised the stakes in its gas dispute with Ukraine last night – risking serious reductions in supplies to European Union countries.
Moscow announced a 20% cut in the volume of gas piped to Europe via Ukraine, which is refusing to pay higher prices demanded by Russia’s monopoly supplier Gazprom.
And although Gazprom’s boss promised to make up the EU shortfall by sending more gas via other routes, the decision increased concern in Brussels of energy shortages as winter bites.
Moscow’s announcement came after senior EU diplomats had been meeting in Brussels to hear that the dispute has already led to significant gas supply reductions in six mid-European member states – Hungary, Poland, Romania, Greece, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.
Moscow blames Ukraine, which Russia accuses of siphoning off supplies destined for the EU to make up for last week’s Gazprom decision to cut off gas to the country.
Ukraine denies the charge, and says technical problems are responsible.
But Moscow claims its 20% cut is equivalent to the volume of gas Ukraine is taking from the pipeline system.
At yesterday’s Brussels talks, some mid-European member states said they had recorded drops in gas supplies in the last five days – since the dispute with the Ukraine began.
But so far the knock-on effect has been limited and diplomats decided to take no further action, pending the outcome of a current EU delegation visit to Kiev, to size up the prospects of a swift settlement of what the EU says is a “commercial” dispute.
The problem is a repeat of gas pipeline disruptions to EU supplies three years ago in a similar wrangle between Russian and Ukraine.
That row triggered a major review of EU energy security policy but the EU still depends on Russia for about 25% of its total gas supplies – and the bulk of Russia’s gas comes to the EU via Ukraine.
Before Moscow’s announcement last night, the European Commission insisted there was no “substantial” supply disruption in any EU country. But diplomats heard some countries had recorded cuts of 30%.
So far the issue is not crucial – since the last row between the two, EU countries have been building up gas storage facilities and can rely on current stocks to make up any temporary shortfall.
EU foreign ministers will discuss later this week what happens if the problem continues: the issue of security of EU energy supplies is already on their agenda at talks in Prague on Thursday.
The dispute is over Ukraine’s refusal to pay a price rise demanded by Russia even though oil prices have been falling.
Washington has called on Russia to consider the humanitarian implications of disrupting gas supplies in winter to countries facing freezing conditions.