Russia to Resume Shipping Natural Gas to Europe

Russia's state gas monopoly has promised to resume shipping Europe-bound gas through Ukraine on Tuesday morning, nearly a week after it shut off the taps and forced countless Europeans to huddle cold and resentful in freezing homes.

However, a spokesman for the Gazprom monopoly indicated lingering problems could still prolong the crisis.

More than 15 countries have been the inadvertent victims of a complex and acrimonious wrangle between Russia and Ukraine over gas prices, past debts and allegations of theft. They also jockeyed over an EU-brokered deal to send pipeline monitors to ensure that restored gas shipments reach their destination.

Russia balked at the deal after Ukraine tried to add a rider declaration that offended Moscow. Ukrainian government officials clarified the deal Monday and said the declaration was not legally binding.

After that, the deputy chairman of the Gazprom monopoly, Alexander Medvedev, said gas supplies would be started at 2 a.m. EST Tuesday "if there are no obstacles."

That could be a significant caveat given the recent sparring between Moscow and Kiev.

"Supplies could be restored tomorrow morning, but we remain realistic. In the last 10 days, there have been quite a few hopeful moments," Czech Energy Minister Martin Riman said at a European Union news conference in Brussels.

Russia shut off all gas to Ukrainian pipelines Wednesday, accusing Ukraine of siphoning off gas intended for downstream countries. About 20 percent of all the gas consumed in Europe comes from Russia through pipelines that cross Ukraine.

Ukraine denies the siphoning charge, but Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said Ukraine will have to use some gas from Russia as so-called "technical gas" to power compressors that push Europe-bound gas through the pipelines.

That position potentially "creates a crisis situation with the transit of Russian gas to European users," Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said in a statement Monday. If Ukraine "cannot guarantee the technical gas by itself from its own resources, it should obtain it and not divert it illegally."

Even if no new impediments arise, consumers could have to wait at least a day for the gas to complete its long journey.

"Within 24 hours, we could expect the gas to be back to consumers," EU energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs said.

Under the monitor agreement, teams of EU, Russian and Ukrainian observers are to track the movement of Russian gas through Ukraine's vast pipeline system.

"As soon as they (the monitors) are at the control points, and we are sure that they can control the transit of our gas, Gazprom will pump gas to Ukraine's gas transit system to be shipped to European customers," Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said at a Cabinet meeting Monday.

The gas cutoff has affected more than 15 countries, with Bosnia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia and Slovakia among the worst hit. Sales of electric heaters have soared and thousands of businesses in eastern Europe have been forced to cut production or even shut down.

Russia still will not send natural gas to Ukraine for domestic consumption. The neighbors remained deadlocked over the price Ukraine should pay for gas in 2009 and the amount Russia should pay for transporting gas through Ukraine. Russia stopped supplying gas to Ukraine on Jan. 1 over the price dispute.

Ukraine in 2008 paid $179.50 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas and turned down Gazprom's proposal of $250 for 2009 — a substantial hike for the economically distressed country but still far below the $450 that European customers pay.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yushchenko in a Monday phone call that Russia will now insist on Ukraine paying the full market price, Russian news agencies reported.

Teams of EU monitors and officials from Naftogaz, Ukraine's state-run energy company, were already at six major gas transit stations on Ukraine's border with European countries and at three units on the Russian-Ukrainian border, according to Naftogaz.

It was unclear when Gazprom's observers would be in place.

Gazprom has lost about $800 million in revenue because of the disruption of supplies, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin said in Brussels.

The anger toward Russia for shutting off supplies was particularly acute in eastern Europe, where many residents spent money they really couldn't afford on electric heating and temperatures plunged to minus 6 F in places like Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital.

"We switched our heating from gas to electricity," said Snjezana Kordic, a 51-year-old Sarajevo resident. "We will never again depend on the mood of the Russians."