BRUSSELS — In the on-again, off-again dispute that led Russia to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, what’s clear now is that the natural gas Europe needs more desperately every day is not yet on again.
(For more on the European gas crisis, see "The gas crisis: winners and losers" by David L. Stern in Kiev and "A Gazprom seat at the UN?" by Miriam Elder in Moscow.)
The impasse between Russia’s Gazprom and Ukraine’s Naftogaz may finally be the impetus for the European Union to stop simply acknowledging that it needs more energy independence and take action.
With no sufficiently robust alternatives to the Russia-Ukraine route, the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, has been able to do little more than stand by helplessly — mediating belatedly and reluctantly — as consumers increasingly suffer from both sides’ intransigence.
This is gas European Union countries have paid for and rely on. The route provides about a fifth of the bloc’s overall gas supplies and some countries, like hardest-hit Bulgaria, get all of their gas this way, meaning that for a week they have gone without.
Even once EU officials and the Czech presidency had secured and re-secured a signed agreement from both Moscow and Kiev that gas flows would be restarted Tuesday, Europe still hadn't received a drop.
Repeating longstanding demands that deliveries resume immediately, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called it “completely unacceptable” that Europe had been “taken hostage” by what the commission had initially insisted on calling a “bilateral commercial dispute.”
But if Europe felt like it was taken hostage, it should not have felt it was taken by surprise. This was almost an exact replay of January 2006, when Russia stopped the flow of gas through Ukraine for three days. EU leaders at that time rushed to declare the necessity of lessening Europe’s dependence on any single provider (code for “Russia”) or transit country. A plan released by the commission two months later, in March 2006, highlighted ways to create “sustainable, competitive and secure” energy supplies.
Chief among the recommendations were increased diversification of both supply and transit routes, which were then, as now, dominated by Russia and Ukraine, respectively. The proposal also recommended building up national stockpiles and improving coordination as well as pipeline connectivity between member states.
“We depend on external sources for 50 percent of our energy needs,” lamented Barroso at the time. “We have to do something about this and we have to do it now.”
More than two-and-a-half years later, in November 2008, the commission released — and the EU approved — another version of an energy plan, again highlighting the basically unchanged need for diversification and improvement of the interconnection of EU electricity and gas networks.
But this should not give the impression that today’s heat-free helplessness is due entirely to a lack of planning. On the contrary, there are several new alternative-pipeline projects that have been drawn up, but the three major ones — Nord Stream, South Stream and Nabucco — have all run into funding problems. And there’s another now-glaring problem: Gazprom is a major partner in both the Nord Stream and South Stream routes, which envision carrying Russian gas directly to European countries without the involvement of Ukraine. Ukraine, meanwhile, has come up with White Stream, which would likewise provide gas to the EU without using Russia as a source.
But the current crisis may have finally turned the EU against both Moscow and Kiev as energy partners. “How could we ever trust either of them again?” said one commission official who spoke on background.
The official said Nabucco, by comparison, will be looking more and more attractive, with a range of potential suppliers and routing through Turkey. The Czech presidency had already announced that bringing Nabucco closer to reality would be a priority of its term.
That ambition is likely to meet with new and renewed support from other EU institutions.
At a public hearing on the crisis, Bulgarian member of Parliament Vladko Panayotov spoke of dire conditions in his country. “You’ve got children dying — women having problems giving birth,” Panayatov told the panel. “The situation is reminiscent of the siege of Stalingrad!”
“Russians play this game with the weakest possible cards,” said Polish MEP Konrad Szymanski, “and they win!” He warned that if the situation is not rectified immediately, “we will come back next winter and the next next winter with the same problem, the same headache and with the same weakness as today.”