Three little words that kept Europe in the cold
The difference between Europe having Russian gas as normal and not having it came down, in the end, to three words. They were hand-written next to what looks like the signature of Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Hryhory Nemyrya and they were: “With declaration attached”.
That was enough to undercut a deal hammered out by Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country holds the rotating EU Presidency, to deploy monitors along the gas pipeline route — Russia’s condition for turning the taps back on.
The declaration that Nemyrya referred to set out Ukraine’s position in a dispute with Moscow over gas prices. It said, among other things, that Ukraine has no outstanding debts to Russia, an assertion with which Moscow strongly disagrees. Russia said the addition of the three words made the monitoring agreement null and void. Deal off.
Which was a shame, because the two sides came tantalisingly close to turning the gas back on.
A few hours earlier, a team of European Union monitors had arrived by bus at the Sudzha gas compressor station in western Russia. They were all set to supervise the resumption of gas flows. They even had a party of journalists in tow to witness the big moment.
In the event, the monitors ate some food, had a tour of the site, and then left for the nearby town of Kursk, presumably to find a hotel for the night. The journalists were loaded onto a bus and driven back to the Ukrainian border where they had come from. For the EU officials trying to get the gas turned back on, it was back to the drawing board. And for people in the worst affected countries in Europe, it meant more days worrying about an energy crisis in mid-winter.
So whose fault was it? Maybe Topolanek should have stopped Nemyrya inserting those three little words. It’s worth asking if these problems would have arisen if the row happened two weeks earlier, when Nicolas Sarkozy still held the EU presidency on behalf of France. Maybe Ukraine should not have tried to amend the agreement by the back door. Maybe Russia should have held its nose and found a way to work around those three words if that was what it took to restore gas flows quickly. Whatever the answer, the episode makes one thing clear: there is total mistrust between the governments of Russia and Ukraine.
The deal could still be resurrected. Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom said early on Monday Ukraine had signed a new version of the agreement, without the conditions. A Russian delegation was on its way to Brussels, possibly to add their signatures to the new version. But even once the deal is done and the gas is flowing again to Europe, the row at the centre of all this, over how much Ukraine should pay for its gas, will still be there. And with so little trust between Moscow and Kiev, as illustrated by the saga of the three little words, that leaves vast potential for new flare-ups.