Behind the Russia-Ukraine Gas Conflict
Economics and politics drove Gazprom's decision to shut off gas to its neighbor
A pressure valve is seen on a gas pipeline in the vicinity of the town of Boyarka, near Kiev, in 2008. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
[Ed. note: This is an updated version of a story originally published Jan. 3.]
It has become a New Year's tradition: With the clock inching closer to midnight, Russia and Ukraine trade threats and accusations as talks over the next year's gas contract come down to the wire. The two neighbors squabble over the price Ukraine will pay for Russian gas—and the tariffs Russia will pay Ukraine for the use of pipelines that cross its territory, sending Russian gas to Europe.
Only once before did the situation get so dire that Gazprom GAZP.RTS, Russia's state-run gas monopoly, followed through on threats to turn off the taps. That was in January 2006, when Russia sought to hike prices sharply in the wake of the Orange Revolution that ushered a Western-leaning government into power in Kiev. But once again, Gazprom cut gas transmission to its Ukraine market on New Year's Day, arguing that Naftogaz, Ukraine's state-run gas company, had failed to pay its gas bill in full and that talks on a price for 2009 had stalled completely.
What's behind the dispute? Gazprom maintains that the conflict is purely commercial. In fact, both economic and political considerations are at play in both countries. That makes it likely the fight will drag on for several days or longer—in contrast to 2006, when the neighbors found a resolution within three days. Coming less than five months after Russia's heavy-handed war with Georgia, the dispute will surely raise questions about Russia's intentions toward its ex-Soviet neighbors, as well as its ability to reliably supply gas to Europe. The European Union imports about a quarter of its gas from Russia, and 80% of that amount travels through pipelines that cross Ukraine. The conflict with Ukraine also comes at a time when Russia has been trying to increase its sway among global oil and gas players, regularly attending OPEC meetings and floating the idea of setting up an OPEC-style group for the global gas industry.
Both Russia and Ukraine have been hit hard by the global financial crisis. Ukraine is one of the few countries that appealed to the International Monetary Fund for help, taking a $16 billion loan in November. Its currency has lost half its value since September, its economy is in deep recession, and thousands face layoffs as its mining industry grinds to a halt. The government, plagued by infighting between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, is paralyzed.
This state of affairs hasn't been lost on Russia, whose own economic miracle has been jeopardized as the financial crisis spreads to the real economy. The country's financial markets have lost three-fourths of their value since August. Industrial production slowed by 8.7% in November—the most since the 1998 financial crisis. And the ruble has lost over 15% of its value in a managed devaluation that has squandered over $160 billion in foreign reserves since mid-November. Russian officials expect economic growth, which averaged 7% over the past five years, to dip to 2% this year.
Eager to distract an increasingly worried population from the problems at home, Russia has filled the airwaves of state-run television with anti-Ukrainian propaganda. Yearend programs wrapping up 2008 gave equal coverage to political discontent in Ukraine as to the war with Georgia. One program ran a 10-minute profile of a Ukrainian man who spent the last year building life-sized dolls of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko and placing them in coffins. For its part, Gazprom has appeared eager to capitalize on Ukraine's political instability to get a better deal.
This year's row began in December, when Gazprom accused Naftogaz of failing to pay a $2 billion debt for gas delivered in 2008, precluding the start of negotiations on a contract for gas delivery in 2009. Naftogaz disputed the debt, finally caving in on Dec. 30 and taking loans from state banks to cover the payment. On New Year's Eve, Gazprom acknowledged that Naftogaz had transferred the payment to RosUkrEnergo, a middleman gas trader it half owns, but the funds had yet to appear on the company's accounts in Moscow. Further, Gazprom charged that Ukraine still owes $600 million in fines. Gazprom has also accused Naftogaz of threatening to siphon gas meant for Europe if the dispute wasn't resolved.
This time around, Europe is better prepared. The economic downturn means less demand for gas, and most countries have built up storage capacity and reserves to last through a short disruption. If the dispute drags on for weeks, however, those supplies will run out. Britain, for example, has storage to weather a complete cut in supplies for 10 to 12 days. France and Germany could last as long as two months.
On Jan. 3, Gazprom said it had boosted supplies to Europe through three alternate pipelines that bypass Ukraine. But countries in Central and Eastern Europe are already feeling the crunch. By Jan. 5, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Turkey already had registered dips in supply. "If the Russian side does not provide more gas [to EU member states] than at the moment, then in around 10 days there could be very serious technical problems," Yushchenko's energy adviser Bogdan Sokolovsky warned at a briefing in Kiev on Jan. 3. While Ukraine argues that it has slightly reduced the flow of gas to maintain pressure in its network. Russia says that its neighbor is stealing gas meant for paying customers in Europe and says it plans to take Naftogaz to international arbitration court in Stockholm.
On Jan. 5, Putin ordered Gazprom to cut supplies through Ukraine by 20%—withholding the 65.3 million cubic meters that Russia alleges Ukraine has illegally siphoned off. Gazprom said it would further increase shipments through alternate pipelines in Belarus, Poland, and Turkey, but they are far smaller than the ones crossing Ukraine.
Eventually, Gazprom hopes to solve its annual problem with Ukraine by shipping gas directly to Europe. The company has grand plans to build pipelines that would send gas straight to Germany and through the Balkans to Western Europe. But the economic downturn has cast doubt on these projects. That means Europe will be getting much of its gas via Ukraine for years to come—once full shipments resume.