Moscow and Kiev seek allies in gas dispute

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Russia and Ukraine vied for European support on Friday as the European Union struggled vainly to avoid intervening in their gas dispute as it began to affect member states.

A Ukrainian delegation began a tour of Europe aimed at drumming up support after the Czech Republic, which holds the EU presidency, said it considered the dispute between Moscow and Kiev to be a bilateral issue and would not step in unless EU supplies were disrupted.

But the EU was forced later to call for an “urgent solution” to the dispute after three member states said they had experienced some disruption of supplies.

Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, pledged to compensate its European buyers for any shortfall in deliveries through Ukrainian pipelines by diverting extra gas through alternative routes, including Belarus.

Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine on Thursday after talks on a deal for this year collapsed. Both sides have guaranteed supplies to the rest of Europe, which relies on Russian gas via Ukrainian pipelines to meet 20 per cent of its demand.

Hungary, Poland and Romania said Russian gas deliveries via pipelines in Ukraine began falling on Friday . Romania said they had fallen by 30 to 40 per cent. Gazprom accused Ukraine of stealing gas from transit pipelines and said some
Balkan countries were suffering a drop in supplies.

The Czech Republic called an EU meeting for Monday to exchange information and co-ordinate a response. The EU said it regretted assurances of reliability of supply had not been met. “Existing commitments to supply and transit have to be honoured under all circumstances. The European Union calls for an urgent solution . . . and for an immediate resumption of full deliveries of gas to the EU member states.”

Mirek Topolanek, Czech prime minister, met the Ukrainian delegation on Friday and is expected to hold talks with Russian officials in the next few days.

Bohdan Sokolovsky, an energy adviser to Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine’s president, said the European Commission had shown “understanding” during talks. However, Oleksandr Hudyma, energy adviser to Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukrainian prime minister, said unwillingness to confront Russia was “no surprise. Ukraine does not have any misconceptions about the support it would get from [the] European Union, which showed itself during the Georgian conflict.”

The EU said the dispute was “a bilateral issue between two countries”. The Commission “encouraged both sides to reach an agreement as soon as possible”.

Gazprom said Ukraine had agreed to transport 296m cubic metres of gas to Europe tomorrow, not the 303m cubic metres Russia had stipulated. Ukraine has admitted to siphoning small volumes of gas “for technical reasons”, covered by existing agreements with Russia.

Industry sources said Ukraine had enough gas stocks to meet its needs for at least six weeks. Gazprom and Naftogaz, Ukraine’s state energy group, have been invited to a meeting on January 9 of the EU’s gas co-ordinating group, which oversees its gas market.

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