Three little words that kept Europe in the cold

January 12, 2009

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.


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Why are we not describing this as exactly what is is? This is a Russian power-play designed to test its firm grip on the throat of the EU and Western Europe. During the previous cold war Russia’s chosen tactic was an occassional invasion (Poland, Checkoslovakia). Today the weapon of choice is energy. Russia has acquired a share of the european energy market which is large enough to enable it to blackmail the continent of Europe. This is not simply a dispute with Ukraine over an overdue bill. With the simple turn of a valve or the flip of a switch Russia has taken the first shot in the new cold war, and her timing is excellent. The global economy is in shambles. Governments everywhere are struggling to stem the tide of an international economic disaster. Europe is held in the grip of winter. The United States is overcommited elsewhere and is in the midst of transitioning administrations. Russia has shaped the battlefield and carefully chosen her timing and tactics. How Europe responds will not simply influence the outcome of the current crisis, but define the future of the European-Russian relationship. Will the West succum to blackmail and through appeasement reinforce Russia’s new found power over the continent? Or, will the EU see this as what it is; a shot over the bow? Europe must act now to acquire alternative energy sources and resources or risk becoming ever more dependent upon Russian whims and influence.

Posted by Dave Clapp | Report as abusive

All very well,but I don’t see why Ukraine shouldn’t pay the same as I do based on the same oil-price connected gas-price in a free market. If I did not pay my bill I would get ‘cut off’. If the Ukraine were in the EU they would have to pay the full-whack to clean up their carbon and pay 7.8 eurocents per cubic metre! They have had 20 years of cheap subsidised gas. Enough is enough.

Posted by Richard | Report as abusive

Comparing and portraying business dispute as “new cold war era ” simple undermine basics of this particular business dispute. Transition and integration of great nation of Ukraine to Pro-European community should engage common business practices, which should not by undermine by armature mistakes (e.g. adding undisclosed declaration) and “free ride – free gas” approach.
One way or the other EU beware!

Posted by Insight team | Report as abusive

This just goes to show that it is the governments of the world that keep failing us. As much as I would love to accuse Russia of being a bully it was the other governments involved that failed to move away from this type supplied gas energy need. If all governments including the US had moved toward the “greener” side 30 years ago the people suffering in these areas now because of the cold wouldn’t be doing so.

So although I do believe Russia is being manipulative we can only put blame on our governments for not realizing the consiquences of oil/gas dependency earlier.

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