In Moscow, Putin called the EU-Ukraine gas pipeline modernisation plan, announced yesterday (23 March), "ill considered and unprofessional".
Hours before in Brussels, Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko also blasted the agreement, signed earlier that day between Ukraine and EU representatives, and even warned that the plan may backfire, with serious consequences for European consumers.
The EU-Ukraine declaration, signed with Ukraine Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko in Brussels, pledges assistance to modernise the country's 13,500 km pipeline system. Shelving his personal conflict with Timoshenko for the occasion, President Viktor Yuschenko also attended the conference, where a Ukrainian 'masterplan' for modernising the country's gas system was presented and hailed by the European Commission.
During his speech, Commission President José Manuel Barroso apparently irked Russia by calling Ukraine "a flagship in driving forward the Eastern Partnership initiative". Over the weekend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lashed out at the EU's new Eastern Partnership, set for its formal launch on 7 May, describing the pact as an attempt by the EU to spread its "sphere of influence," a criticism which he said his country often stands accused of itself.
Indeed, the Eastern Partnership, and in particular its energy dimension, appears to particularly irritate Russia as Moscow was excluded from the initiative. Indeed, in the event of a renewed gas row with Kiev, it would be much more difficult for Russia to blame Ukraine under conditions of improved transparency on the part of the Ukrainians.
After the Russian delegation left the conference in a sign of protest, Russia's mission to the EU in Brussels hastily arranged its own press conference.
"Unfortunately we found that the prepared document makes not a single mention of Russia as a principal supplier or a strategic partner to Ukraine and to the European Union as a gas supplier," Shmatko said. He added: "We are of the view that the success of the project is possible only with the active participation of all interested parties."
Shmatko saw "political motivation" in the Commission's haste to push for a deal on modernising Ukraine's gas pipeline system. He also said he had told Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs that the project, which he compared to a "crystal aquarium", would lead to "nothing".
"As we understand the development of the political situation in Ukraine, this idea [by the Commission] will not be realised. Therefore, we strongly believe that somebody has been in a big hurry, with this conference, in order to use this moment of time to have this declaration signed on these principles," said Shmatko.
Valeri Golubev, deputy chairman of Gazprom's management committee, joined Shmatko in warning that the Commission's plans to modernise the Ukrainian gas system by isolating Russia will trigger "double expenditure" at the expense of the consumer. Golubev also called for any such effort be channelled via the consortium between Gazprom and Ukrainian gas monopoly Naftogaz, in which both sides hold 50%. Additional EU shareholders could also join, he said. The consortium was set up as part of the agreement that ended the January gas crisis.
Both Shmatko and Golubev expressed reservations regarding the idea of setting up a single entity in charge of gas transportation through Ukraine. They also described as "unrealistic" the cost estimates for the modernisation of Ukraine's pipeline system, which the EU and Ukraine valued at 2.5-3 billion euros.