Expectations that the Ukraine-Russia gas dispute would be resolved swiftly were shattered yesterday (13 January) after the two sides exchanged further accusations, leaving Europeans cold for a second week.
Despite the swift deployment of EU observers to monitor Russian gas transiting through Ukraine under an agreement reached on Monday (EurActiv 13/01/09), no gas was pumped until today (14 January).
In what appears to be a strategy of delusion reminiscent of the Cold War, Russia introduced conditions which forced Ukraine to block the renewal of supplies.
The standoff is now turning into a deep political crisis in Ukraine, after Moscow and Kiev exchanged accusations that shattered the credibility of Russia as an energy supplier and of Ukraine as a reliable partner to the West.
Gazprom insists that gas should be supplied via an alternative metering station in Sudzha, on the grounds that this would allow the commodity to reach the Balkans more quickly, because that region has been hit worst by the crisis. But using Sudzha would require Ukraine to shut down domestic supplies, aggravating public discontent.
The Russian gas monopoly also insisted that Ukraine should pay millions of dollars for special delivery of 'technical gas', used to maintain pressure in the pipelines.
Ukraine compared to 'ship with drunk captain'
The row with Russia left Ukraine with no supplies for more than ten days, bringing the economy to a standstill, reducing heating for the population and empowering the opposition to attack pro-Western President Victor Yushchenko, support for whom has fallen to an appalling 2%. The country's currency fell by 40% against the dollar.
The Ukrainian press quoted ordinary citizens, who compared their country to "a ship with a drunk captain".
The opposition Region Party leader Viktor Yanukovich, favoured by Moscow, asked for a special commission to investigate the authorities' handling of the gas dispute, the resignation of the cabinet and the start of procedures for the impeachment of the president. The Region Party draws most of its support from the Russian-speaking Eastern part of the country.
But Yanukovich's party does not have enough strength in Parliament to initiate a non-confidence vote. As for the impeachment procedure, it is seen as too complex. But observers believe that Russia will use all its leverage against Yuschenko, whom the Kremlin wants to punish for its pro-NATO agenda. In such a perspective, the crisis might last longer, observers fear.
Gazprom accuses Washington
Gazprom deputy chief Alexander Medvedev went as far as blaming Ukrainian officials for taking orders from the United States.
"It looks like they are dancing [to] music that is not orchestrated in Ukraine," he said in a conference call with reporters, speaking in English.
Medvedev referred to a recently signed document between Kiev and Washington, called "US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership," of which he said he did not know all the details.
But according to a copy published in the US State Department website, this agreement mentions gas only once when it states that the parties "intend to work closely together on rehabilitating and modernising the capacity of Ukraine's gas transit infrastructure".
Bulgarian, Slovak PMs meet Putin
In a move which does not appear to be coordinated by Brussels, the prime ministers of Bulgaria and Slovakia, the EU countries worst hit by the crisis, yesterday arrived in Moscow, where they are due today to meet their Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The Bulgarian press reported that the country's Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev will also fly to Kiev and meet his Ukrainian counterpart Yulia Timoshenko and President Viktor Yuschenko.
Both Slovakia and Bulgaria have recently indicated that they are considering re-opening Soviet-era nuclear reactors, closed as part of their pre-accession deal, to make up for the energy shortage (EurActiv 12/01/09, 07/01/09).