Leaders of Gas-Starved EU Nations Fed Up as Gas Dispute Rages On

The leaders of several gas-starved European nations traveled to Ukraine and Russia on Wednesday, pressing them to restore supplies as the EU threatened both with legal action for halting energy deliveries in the midst of winter.

But Ukraine's natural gas company said for a second straight day it would not send Russian gas along to Europe. It claimed that Russia's gas monopoly Gazprom was trying to force it to cut service to parts of Ukraine in order to send the gas along.

For his part, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of holding European nations hostage and insisted the EU should not accept Ukraine's claims. He spoke as he met with the prime ministers of Slovakia, Bulgaria and Moldova at his residence outside Moscow.

"No matter what papers others provide, I'll burn them in the oven," he told the visitors, referring to Ukrainian documents sent to the European Union. "We opened the tap, and are ready to supply gas, but on the other side, the tap is closed.

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"Nobody, no transit country, has the right to use its transit location to take other customers hostage," Putin declared.

Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico said "Ukraine is losing the trust of European partners because of its behavior."

"The most unpleasant part is that millions of Europeans feel like hostages and are truly suffering," added Bulgaria's Sergei Stanishev.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who traveled Wednesday to Poland for talks on the crisis, has accused Russia of trying to wrest control of Ukraine's 23,000-mile gas pipeline network.

With no end to the politically charged dispute in sight — despite a weekend agreement that sent teams of EU monitors out to pumping stations to keep tabs on the gas flows — the EU was fed up.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso warned Gazprom and Naftogaz, Ukraine's state-run gas company, that he will urge European energy companies to sue them unless they move quickly to restore gas supplies.

"If the agreement is not honored, it means that Russia and Ukraine can no longer be considered reliable partners for the European Union in matters of energy supply," Barroso told the European Parliament.

Gazprom stopped sending gas into Ukraine's pipeline system on Jan. 7, alleging that Ukraine was siphoning off supplies destined for Europe. Ukraine has denied the charges, claiming that Russia has not sent enough so-called "technical gas" to pump the rest of the gas west to Europe.

Gazprom cut off all gas supplies to Ukraine itself on Jan. 1, amid a clash over what price Ukraine should pay for gas in 2009.

The dispute has affected millions of people, mostly in eastern Europe and sent at least 15 European nations scrambling for heat. Thousands of businesses have had to shut down or cut production, forcing workers into involuntary layoffs.

Serbia reported Wednesday that its power grid was getting overloaded as thousands switched to electric heat and urged residents to conserve energy. It also said air pollution in Belgrade, the capital, was increasing amid the shift from natural gas to oil.

Hungary issued its first-ever smog alert in Budapest last week for the same reason.

Russia opened a tap to Ukraine on Tuesday after the hard-won EU deal to monitor gas flows, raising hopes across Europe.

But Ukraine's gas company Naftogaz did not deliver the gas to Europe, saying Gazprom demanded that it use a technically arduous route which would force Ukraine to halt supplies to a large swath of its own territory. Ukraine uses Russian gas, but also produces natural gas on its own and has large stockpiles of the fuel.

Naftogaz head Oleh Dubina said Gazprom made the same request again Wednesday — and he would not agree to halt supplies to Ukrainian consumers.

"Unfortunately, we answered the same way: we cannot leave our regions without gas," Dubina told reporters.

Gazprom has rejected the claim, saying the route was fine.

Earlier in Kiev, Fico urged Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to hold talks with Putin to resolve the dispute as soon as possible.

"We ask for talks between the prime ministers of Russia and Ukraine. This is an issue that is very important for us," Fico said.

Russia and Ukraine are deeply at odds over what Ukraine will pay for Russian gas in 2009. Ukraine last year paid $179.50 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas and its president said Tuesday that Ukraine will pay no more than $210 in 2009.

Russia wants Ukraine to pay market price for gas, about the $450 that European customers pay.