German Warning For Russia: Maintain Europe’s Gas Flow

BERLIN, Germany -- Germany, the Western European country with the closest ties to the Kremlin, warned Russia on Friday to abide by its contractual relations, saying its reputation as a reliable supplier of gas could no longer be taken for granted as a result of the two-week gas dispute between Ukraine and Russia that has left millions of homes without heat.

A gas-compressor station near the Ukrainian-Romanian border. Russia and Ukraine were set for a new round of talks Saturday in a bid to resolve their gas dispute that has Europe struggling through winter without crucial gas supplies from the ex-Soviet giants.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who met Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Berlin on Friday evening, made it clear that Russia’s “credibility” was now on the line. “We have to restore trust and responsibility,” she said before the meeting.

A government spokesman, Thomas Steg, said Friday that it was crucial that both Ukraine and Russia “abide by their contractual obligations.”

Large parts of the Balkans, especially Bulgaria, have been without natural gas over the past 10 days during one of the coldest spells of the winter, while Russia and Ukraine have haggled over what price Ukraine will pay for its gas and what price Russia will pay for sending gas across Ukraine.

More than 80 percent of Russian gas destined for markets in Europe is sent through the Ukrainian transit system.

Mr. Putin, in Berlin to meet with energy officials and attend an agricultural fair, proposed the establishment of a consortium of European gas firms that would provide gas to Ukraine and get pipelines to Europe working again “reasonably fast.”

The consortium would provide “technical gas” to Ukraine to build enough compression in the pipeline to begin deliveries to Europe.

Normally, Russia supplies such gas.

However, the idea of a consortium of any sort is likely to raise hackles in Ukraine, where it would almost certainly be viewed as an attempt by Mr. Putin to wrest control of Ukraine’s transit pipeline.

A 2005 pricing dispute was widely regarded by Ukraine as such a power play, while an earlier Russian proposal for a consortium played a significant part in the events that led to Ukraine’s pro-Western Orange Revolution of 2004.

Mr. Putin is scheduled to meet with Ukraine’s prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, in Moscow on Saturday to discuss ways to resolve the dispute.

Ms. Tymoshenko has had difficult relations with her partner in Ukraine’s governing coalition, President Viktor A. Yushchenko, and Mr. Putin has offered her his support in the past in what his detractors called a transparent effort to split the pro-Western government.

Russia also appears to be trying to gain the backing of the European Union in pressing Ukraine to accept the consortium arrangement; on Friday in Berlin he emphasized that the group’s refusal to criticize Ukraine was an implicit form of support.

In Moscow, Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, pursued much the same line. “We are ready to look for any long-term solution,” he said, according to Agence France-Presse. “We hope Ukraine is ready to do the same and that our European partners will help bring about the necessary decisions.” So far, these entreaties have been rebuffed in Europe.

With frustration rising in Europe over the standoff, the European Commission threatened Friday to review its entire relationship with Russia and Ukraine unless there was a breakthrough this weekend.

“We will have to look,” said Johannes Laitenberger, the European Commission spokesman, “point by point, at our relationship with Russia and Ukraine and whether we can continue to do business as usual in these circumstances.”

Source: New York Times