A New Front In The Ukrainian Conflict: Russian Gas Imports

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Workers stand next to a gas pipeline not far from the central Ukrainian city of Poltava in June 2014. Ukraine imports much of its gas from Russia, which is once again threatening to cut off supplies in a dispute over payments. (AFP/Getty Images)
Workers stand next to a gas pipeline not far from the central Ukrainian city of Poltava in June 2014. Ukraine imports much of its gas from Russia, which is once again threatening to cut off supplies in a dispute over payments. (AFP/Getty Images)

Ukraine faces a trio of crises — war, bankruptcy, and now, the threat that its people may have the heat turned off for the rest of winter.

Russia is once again threatening to cut off shipments of natural gas to Ukraine — and hinting that fuel supplies to Europe could be disrupted as well.

Energy ministers from Russia and Ukraine are holding emergency talks in Brussels mediated by the European Union.

It's an issue for the entire continent. About 40 percent of EU gas imports come from Russia, and half of that is delivered by pipelines that cross Ukraine.

Russia says Ukraine still owes more than $2 billion in gas bills and has been requiring Ukraine to pay in advance for the fuel it has been burning this winter.

Last week, Alexei Miller, the head of Gazprom, Russia's giant state-run gas company, said Ukraine's prepayment was about to run out, and that Russia would have to stop shipping gas to Ukraine in a matter of days.

Why should Europe be affected if Ukraine doesn't pay its bills?

Ukraine takes its Russian gas from the same pipelines that supply Europe.

When Russia cuts off gas to Ukraine, it just reduces the amount of gas in those lines.

The fuel that's allotted to Europe should keep flowing — but there's nothing to stop Ukraine from siphoning off the gas it needs.

Alexander Novak, Russia's energy minister, said ominously that Ukraine might help itself to Europe's gas again.

"Since Ukraine doesn't have enough gas to fully cover its needs, there's a risk that it will snatch gas from the export pipeline."

Previous Shutdowns

The only way for Russia to prevent Ukraine from taking gas, is to shut the pipeline down altogether.

This has happened before, in 2006 and 2009, when many European countries had their gas supplies cut because Russia was punishing Ukraine.

For its part, Ukraine says Russia is violating the terms of the current supply agreement, by not delivering the full amount of the gas that Ukraine paid for in advance.

That part of the dispute stems from Russia's support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine temporarily cut off gas supplies to its eastern provinces, saying the pipelines had been damaged by fighting.

Russia began using some old Soviet pipelines to ship gas directly to the separatist areas, and it deducted the cost of that gas from Ukraine's prepayment.

Ukraine views the separatists as Russian-backed terrorists and saw Russia's move as an attempt to bill the Ukrainian government for fuel deliveries that it couldn't control.

Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of deliberately depriving the people in the separatist regions of heat.

"Not only are they already going hungry," Putin said, "but cutting off these people's gas as well? What do you call that? It smells like genocide."

Ukraine's national gas company, Naftogaz, said the pipelines were later repaired and the company was able to ship gas to the east again.

Russian officials now say they'll keep shipping gas to the separatist areas "as a humanitarian gesture."

Neither Putin nor the other Russian officials addressed the humanitarian implications of cutting off gas to the rest of Ukraine.

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