- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009

ASSOCIATED PRESS

KIEV | Ukraine on Sunday accepted a deal on the European Union-led monitoring of Russian gas transit across its territory, opening the way for restarting Russian natural-gas supplies to a freezing Europe after a four-day halt in shipments.

Russia wanted the written deal to renew gas shipments that were suspended amid a bitter contract dispute with Ukraine - a move seen by many as another attempt by Moscow to reassert its clout over Western-leaning former Soviet republics.

Russia said it needs European Union monitors deployed to Ukraine to prevent Kiev from stealing Russian gas intended for Europe. Ukraine hotly denied claims that it has taken gas intended for the EU.

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, shuttled between Moscow and Kiev on Saturday to mediate the deal. He finally persuaded Ukraine to accept the monitoring pact during marathon talks that dragged past midnight.

“Nothing prevents Russia now from resuming gas supplies,” Mr. Topolanek said after Ukrainian officials endorsed the deal.

“We once again have shown our good will,” said Ukraine’s prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, adding that the monitoring mission would uphold her nation’s image as an “honest transit country.”

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised that Moscow would resume gas shipments once the deal was signed and monitors were in place. He didn’t say how quickly Russia might restart supplies, but Bohdan Sokolovsky, an energy adviser to the Ukrainian president, told the Associated Press it would take Russia about 30 hours to begin gas deliveries, and it would then take another 36 hours for Ukraine to move gas to its western border.

Russia supplies about a quarter of the EU’s natural gas, most of it shipped through Ukraine, and the disruption has come during a harsh winter. At least 11 people froze to death last week in Europe, including 10 in Poland.

Mr. Topolanek talked with Mr. Putin for more than five hours at the Russian’s residence outside Moscow after visiting Ukraine the previous night. He then rushed back to Kiev late Saturday to get Ukraine’s approval.

“This agreement is very important for us,” Mr. Topolanek said during the talks with Ukrainian officials. “We can’t allow the entire energy system of Europe to collapse.”

Ukraine initially objected to the monitoring pact, voicing concern that it could give Russian officials too much access to the Ukrainian gas-transit system. Mr. Putin insisted the deal was needed to make transit fully transparent and warned that Russia could again reduce shipments if Ukraine siphons gas.

“Once the monitoring mechanism starts working, we will start gas supplies,” Mr. Putin said after the talks with Mr. Topolanek. “But if we see them stealing it again and part of the gas is missing, we will again reduce supplies by that amount.”

Monitors, including representatives of the European Commission, European energy companies and Russian and Ukrainian gas officials, will travel to gas-pumping stations on Ukraine’s eastern and western borders to track the gas flow.

Mr. Topolanek said there is no time limit for the observers’ mission, and Mr. Putin said “the longer they stay, the better it is for us, Ukraine and European consumers.”

A commercial dispute over gas transit and prices triggered the crisis, but relations between the two ex-Soviet neighbors have been strained since the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine led to the election of a pro-Western government in Kiev.

Mr. Putin denied allegations that Moscow was pursuing political goals in the gas dispute, saying it wants market-based economic relations with its neighbor.

• Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva, Douglas Birch and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Yuras Karmanau in Kiev contributed to this report.

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