Vienna: The Russia-Ukraine natural gas dispute hit Europe with the force of a winter storm, cutting or limiting supplies to at least a dozen nations. Tens of thousands of people were left without heat and governments scrambled to find alternate energy sources.
Shocked by how fast the shortages were spreading, the European Union on Tuesday demanded a quick end to the quarrel a sharp turnaround from their earlier stance, when officials had downplayed the conflict between Moscow and Kiev as primarily a business matter.
But by Tuesday evening, gauges on delivery pipelines to seven countries including some totally dependent on Russian gas pointed toward zero and an increasing number of other nations reported significant reductions.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of stealing gas and ordered Russia’s gas giant Gazprom to continue a 15% cut in daily shipments through Ukraine.
Ukraine has acknowledged diverting some of the gas, but says it has the right to use it to run compressors at pumping stations along the pipeline network.
Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Romania, Croatia, Serbia and Turkey all reported a halt in gas shipments, while France, Germany, Austria, Poland and Hungary reported substantial drops in supplies from Russia.
Some governments and utilities sought to reassure the public, saying well-stocked storage facilities would allow them to weather the storm.
Still, the growing fallout from the dispute evoked memories of the 2006 Gazprom-Ukraine gas war and starkly reflected once again the continent’s energy dependence on Moscow.
Balkan nations appeared to be the worst hit.
In Bulgaria, which depends totally on Russian gas, the eastern cities of Varna and Dobrich were left without any gas due to the cutoff. Authorities said 12,000 Varna households were without central heating amid freezing temperatures.
With pipeline operator Bulgargaz saying Bulgaria had gas reserves for only “a few days,” President Georgi Parvanov urged authorities to restart a mothballed unit of its nuclear plant.
Serbia, which also relies on Russia for 90% of its gas, said all supplies ceased Tuesday afternoon. With little in storage, serious outages were possible within days.
Turkey, facing a complete gas cutoff from Russia, weighed alternate supply options, including an offer from Iran to increase supplies through an Iranian-Turkish pipeline.
With icy temperatures hitting central Europe, Germany, Europe’s largest economy, also braced for emergency mode. On Ruhrgas, the nation’s biggest gas importer, announced it expected all Russian natural gas shipments sent via a pipeline through Ukraine to stop.
Germany imports close to 40% of its gas from Russia 80% through Ukraine. But the Economic Ministry said Germany maintains 46 well-stocked underground storage facilities and experts estimated that reserves were enough to cover demand for 40 days.
France, Britain and much of northern Europe were less affected.
The European Union expressed outrage, saying spigots were turned off “without prior warning and in clear contradiction” to earlier assurances by top Russian and Ukrainian authorities.
Washington, which blamed Moscow back in 2006, was careful not to take sides this time.
After days of blaming each other for the crisis, Russia and Ukraine agreed to hold new talks in Moscow on Thursday. The two feuding neighbors are locked in a dispute over pricing and overdue payments. Russia cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine on 1 January but had promised to keep gas moving to Europe.
The sudden drop in supplies evoked memories of January 2006, when a similar dispute left much of Europe with shortfalls of up to 50%. Russia has a near pipeline monopoly to EU countries even for non-Russian gas.