- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2009

VIENNA, Austria | The Russia-Ukraine natural gas dispute hit Europe with the force of a winter storm Tuesday, cutting or limiting supplies to at least a dozen nations. Tens of thousands of people were left without heat and governments scrambled to find alternate energy sources.

Shocked by how fast the shortages were spreading, the European Union demanded a quick end to the quarrel - a sharp turnaround from an earlier stance, when officials had downplayed the conflict between Moscow and Kiev as primarily a business matter.

But by Tuesday evening, gauges on delivery pipelines to seven countries - including some depending totally on Russian gas - pointed to zero and an increasing number of other nations reported significant reductions.

The Ukrainian gas company Naftogaz said Russia’s gas giant Gazprom had sharply reduced its shipments to Europe through pipelines crossing Ukraine, triggering the cuts. Gazprom in turn accused Ukraine of shutting three of four transit pipelines. Russia also has accused Ukraine of siphoning off gas meant for Europe.

Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Romania, Croatia, Serbia and Turkey all reported a halt in gas shipments, while France, Germany, Austria, Poland and Hungary reported substantial drops in supplies from Russia.

Some governments and utilities sought to reassure the public, saying well-stocked storage facilities would allow them to weather the storm.

Still, the growing fallout from the dispute evoked memories of the 2006 Gazprom-Ukraine gas war - and starkly reflected once again the continent’s energy dependence on Moscow.

Balkan nations appeared to be the worst hit.

In Bulgaria, which depends totally on Russian gas, the eastern cities of Varna and Dobrich were left without any gas due to the cutoff. Authorities said 12,000 Varna households were without central heating in freezing weather.

With pipeline operator Bulgargaz saying Bulgaria had gas reserves for only “a few days,” President Georgi Parvanov urged authorities to restart a mothballed unit of its nuclear plant.

Serbia, which also relies on Russia for 90 percent of its gas, said all supplies ceased Tuesday afternoon. With little in storage, serious outages were possible within days.

Turkey, facing a complete gas cutoff from Russia, weighed alternate supply options, including an offer from Iran to increase supplies through an Iranian-Turkish pipeline.

With icy weather hitting Central Europe, Germany, Europe’s largest economy, also braced for an emergency. E.On Ruhrgas, the nation’s biggest gas importer, announced it expected all Russian natural gas shipments sent via a pipeline through Ukraine to stop.

The European Union expressed outrage, saying spigots were turned off “without prior warning and in clear contradiction” to earlier assurances by top Russian and Ukrainian authorities.

“This situation is completely unacceptable,” said European Commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger - comments echoed in Washington.

“This episode underscores the critical need to diversify sources of natural gas, as well as other energy supplies,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

After days of blaming each other for the crisis, Russia and Ukraine agreed to hold new talks in Moscow on Thursday. The two feuding neighbors are locked in a dispute over pricing and overdue payments. Russia cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine on Jan. 1 but had promised to keep gas moving to Europe.

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