- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2009

KIEV

Schools closed, heating shut down and nearly a dozen European nations reported a cutoff of natural-gas supplies in one of the coldest winters in recent memory.

Russia and Ukraine blamed each other in a dispute as bitter as the temperature with a cold front blanketing Europe. Thermometers fell to minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit in some capitals.

“We can´t transit anything if there is nothing to transit,” said Ihor Didenko, assistant chairman of Ukraine’s Naftogaz, which operates pipelines that deliver 80 percent of Russia’s natural gas to the rest of Europe.

On a day when Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas, Romania declared a state of emergency. Thousands of households in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, went without heat and Bulgaria turned off heating on buses and trains in Sofia.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered the state-owned energy giant Gazprom to cut all deliveries to Ukraine, and Ukrainian officials said the pipelines ran dry shortly after 7 a.m.

Mr. Putin said gas would be turned on if international observers were in place to prevent Ukraine from stealing gas destined for the rest of Europe.

Russia supplies about 40 percent of Europe’s natural gas.

The U.S. sided with Ukraine.

“Cutting off these supplies during winter to a vulnerable population is just something that is unacceptable to us,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.

National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley warned Russia that using gas for leverage over its neighbors could backfire.

“A Russia that continues to threaten its neighbors and manipulate their access to energy will compromise any aspirations for greater global influence,” he said.

Supply disruptions were reported as far west as France. European leaders called on Moscow and Kiev to resolve the conflict, while energy ministers planned to meet in Brussels on Thursday.

“Russia will resume its deliveries when the observer groups are in place,” Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek told reporters in Prague. The Czech Republic holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.

Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko called on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to end the energy embargo, which began Jan. 1 over a commercial dispute between the two nations over the price of gas.

In a letter to the Kremlin, Mr. Yushchenko said Russia must “immediately renew the operative daily transit [of gas] to European countries.” He also said he was “deeply concerned” by the worsening conflict between the two nations.

“Without prior warning to the Ukrainian side, the Russian side closed the last crossing of Russian gas to Ukraine … and in that way stopped the export of Russian gas to Europe,” Oleh Dubina, head of Naftogaz, told reporters.

Alexei Miller, head of Russia´s Gazprom, said the move was necessary because, he said, Ukraine was siphoning gas meant for European customers.

“Unfortunately, there has been an open stealing of gas,” he told journalists during a news conference in Brussels. “Russia has become a prisoner of Ukraine´s blame game.”

This is not the first time Kiev and Moscow have been at loggerheads over gas prices. Russia cut supplies to Ukraine in January 2006, causing similar supply disruptions throughout much of Europe.

But that suspension only lasted a day, and since then both countries have tried to present themselves as reliable partners to the West - Russia as a gas supplier and Ukraine as a transporter.

The current crisis has gone further than both sides anticipated. Neither has been able to agree on the price Kiev should pay Moscow for gas, or what Russia should pay Ukraine in transit fees.

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