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Russia-Ukraine Gas Dispute Continues

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Anya Ardayeva

The dispute between Russia and Ukraine over natural gas shipments and prices is moving into its second week, and has left large swaths of Europe without adequate heat this winter.

The European Commission has warned Russian and Ukrainian gas companies it will take legal action if agreements brokered by the EU are not observed.

Meanwhile, some analysts in Moscow say the feud has already damaged relations between Russia and the European Union.

As Russia and Ukraine continue arguing over gas shipments, European countries are calling for the gas flow to be restored after enduring a week of freezing weather without Russian gas.  

In a meeting with his Bulgarian and Slovakian counterparts, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Russia is doing its best to resume the gas supplies to Europe that flow through Ukraine's pipelines.

Putin blamed Ukraine for stopping the transit. "What matters is that we opened the tap, and are ready to supply gas, but on the Ukrainian side, the tap is closed and no gas is being transported," he said. "No transit country has the right to abuse its transit situation and speculate on it and to take European customers hostage."

For its part, Kyiv is blaming Moscow, saying Russia has provided so little gas, there is not enough pressure in the pipelines to pump it.

"Ukraine did not halt Russian gas transit to Europe," said Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko. "This was done unilaterally by the Russian Federation and as soon as Russia resumes gas supplies for the European Union, Ukraine, without a doubt, will fulfill transit."

Russia has insisted its dispute with Ukraine is nothing more than about prices. It wants Ukraine to pay $450 for 1,000 cubic meters of gas this year, more than double the price than last year.

Ukraine, which is struggling through an economic crisis, says it cannot afford that. Similar supply interruptions of gas first occurred in January 2006, when price disagreements were not settled on time.

Some analysts in Moscow say the conflict is not just about money. Evgeni Volk heads the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington. 

"I believe that the gas conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which received strong international repercussion, is not an economic or financial crisis," Volk said. "It's a deep political crisis which reflects the difference of interests between Russia and Ukraine and in a larger context between Russia and Europe in general."

Russia shut off Ukraine's domestic supply on January 1 and then gas supplies to Europe a week later.  It did so after accusing Kiev of stealing gas meant for other European customers -  a claim Ukraine denied.

Eighteen countries across Europe have been hit by the shutdown of Russian gas. And with hundreds of thousands of people left without heat in the middle of the winter, the Russia- EU relationship is undergoing a chill as well.

"It certainly provoked damage to negotiations between Russia and the EU on the so-called strategic partnership," Volk added. "You know last year after the Georgia crisis these negotiations were suspended, they were resumed after almost half a year with great difficulty, and now I believe once again these negotiations are jeopardized by Russia's position in this conflict with Ukraine."

And with Moscow insisting that gas is flowing from Russia to Ukraine for export, and Kyiv  saying it is technically unable to pass it on to its neighbors, negotiations between the two former Soviet allies may have reached a dead-end.

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