On again, off again? Gas dispute continues between Russia, Ukraine

Despite reports that Russia had resumed pumping gas to Europe via Ukraine, European Union officials said Tuesday that little or no gas was moving.

EU says gas not yet flowing from Russia

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visits Gazprom's main control room in Moscow on Tuesday. ((Mikhail Metzel/Associated Press))

Despite reports that Russia had resumed pumping gas to Europe via Ukraine, European Union officials said Tuesday that little or no gas was moving.

Russia's state gas company, Gazprom, maintained the gas had been turned on and that Ukraine was responsible for the holdup.

Ukraine has failed to open its pipelines to begin carrying Russian gas to Europe, said Gazprom deputy chairman Alexander Medvedev.

EU spokesman Ferran Tarradellas Espuny said "very limited" amounts of gas had started flowing to Ukraine and only through one entry point from Russia.

Ukrainian energy adviser Bohdan Sokolovsky said Russia is trying to ship the natural gas intended for Europe on a "technically impossible transit route" through the country's vast pipeline system.

Russia has selected a single gas entry point at its border and ordered the gas be transported to a pumping station near the Romania border, Sokolovsky said.

The two points are not linked by an export pipeline and would require Ukraine to cut service to domestic consumers in its eastern industrial region before it can deliver gas to the Balkans, Sokolovsky said.

Medvedev said Ukraine didn't open any export pipelines.

"They just shut down the entry of the pipeline in the direction of the Balkans. We don't have the physical opportunity to pump the gas to European customers."

Sokolovsky said Russia is trying to discredit Ukraine with the route it selected.

Eleven deaths reported

Russia's gas cutoff has left large parts of Europe in the cold and dark in the midst of winter. Eleven people have reportedly frozen to death during the dispute.

European Union officials said that when pumping resumes it will take at least a day for gas to reach consumers in Europe.

Moscow alleges that Ukraine illegally siphoned off supplies meant for other European countries between Jan. 1 and Jan. 7 — a charge Kiev denies.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, seen in the country's parliament in Kiev on Tuesday, says Ukraine needs to use Russian gas to power compressors that provide other parts of Europe with gas. ((Sergei Chuzavkov/Associated Press))

Ukraine Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said Monday the country needs to use some of the gas from Russia to power the compressors that push gas to Europe.

Gazprom said that should be Ukraine's responsibility.

"The amount of Russian gas pumped into Ukraine's pipeline network must strictly correspond to the amount of gas flowing out of Ukraine," said Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov.

Despite the warning, Naftogaz spokesman Valentyn Zemlyansky said Ukraine will continue to use some of the Europe-bound gas as fuel for its pumping stations.

Russia has not agreed to send natural gas to Ukraine for domestic consumption. The countries are deadlocked over the price for gas in 2009 for Ukraine and the amount Russia should pay for transporting gas through the country.

Analysts have said that the dispute may continue to cause supply interruptions.

A deal signed Monday to restart the gas flow requires a EU-led monitoring mission at the metering and compressor stations across Ukraine.

The monitoring agreement is meant to allow European, Russian and Ukrainian experts to measure the flow of Russian gas through Ukrainian pipelines.

Monitors not yet in place

But EU monitors still don't have full and free access to dispatching centres in Kiev or Moscow to check the gas flow, Tarradellas Espuny said.

Medvedev said Ukraine has allegedly barred observers from a central control room for its pipeline network and underground gas storage.

"Access to the dispatching rooms is essential to know what is actually happening," he said, adding it's "too early to draw such conclusions" on who to blame.

EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has complained directly to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin over the lack of natural gas flowing to Europe, according an official in Barroso's office.

Barroso's spokesperson said Barroso called Putin to express "disappointment with both the level of gas flowing to Europe" and the lack of access "of our monitors to dispatch centers."

Putin promised to look into both matters, the spokesperson said.

But a spokesperson in Putin's office told the Associated Press the prime minister told Barroso that Ukraine is to blame for the problem and advised him to contact Ukrainian officials.

Reports are also indicating that Putin has spoken with his Bulgarian and Slovak counterparts and urged them to increase the pressure on Ukraine to ensure gas flow to Europe.

Meanwhile, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered Gazprom to reduce supplies if Ukraine is siphoning gas and to suspend it if the country is stealing.

Russia supplies about one-quarter of the EU's natural gas and 80 per cent of it is shipped through Ukraine.

The hardest hit of the 18 countries affected by the gas cut-off include Bulgaria, Moldova and Bosnia.

Russia used the gas dispute to reaffirm its push for prospective gas pipelines under the Baltic and the Black Sea, which would bypass Ukraine. But EU officials said the crisis should encourage a search for independent energy sources and supply routes, such as the U.S.-backed Nabucco pipeline that would carry Caspian energy resources circumventing Russia.

With files from the Associated Press