Crisis chills Europe's ties to Russia

A cold, divided, and annoyed Europe struggles to find a way to prevent Russia from turning down the heat. Eastern Europe, meanwhile, continues to shiver.

By , Correspondent

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    Fired up: With natural gas supplies from Russia cut off, an orthodox priest tended a wood stove before mass Thursday at a church near Sofia, Bulgaria.
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With parts of Eastern Europe now going without heat because of the lingering natural gas conflict between Russia and Ukraine, officials in Europe say they must do more to prevent Russia from having so much control over the continent's thermostat.

In Bulgaria, which has relied on Russia for almost all its gas, the crisis has closed dozens of schools and factories. Thousands of residents in key cities such as Varna and Burgas are without heat and cooking gas, according to Bulgarian media. The crisis caused a run on electrical heaters in shops around the country, but overuse of the devices triggered a short blackout in the capital, Sofia, on Wednesday.

"I don't know why the Russians are doing this to us. We were friends," says Dana Ivanova, a Sofia news vendor. Ms. Ivanova adds that she no longer removes her coat after coming home from working on frigid city streets.

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The European Union has now dropped its hands-off approach to resolving Russia's acrimonious, week-old gas war with Ukraine. After a meeting with officials of Russia's Gazprom and Ukraine's Naftohaz in Brussels Thursday, European Commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger told journalists that Europe expects Moscow and Kiev to settle their dispute or suffer severe consequences. "The immediate problem is for those who have lost their gas supplies," he said. "But in the medium and long term, the problem is with those who are found not to be reliable suppliers. ... That means of course that customers will have to think about alternatives."

Until this week, the EU tried to maintain a "neutral" position on the central dispute between Moscow and Kiev. But with Austria, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and EU-suitor states Croatia and Bosnia faced with cut-offs, this has not been possible. EU monitors are now going to verify gas shipments between Russia and Ukraine, and EU Commission president Manuel Barroso warned both states that further cutoffs would damage relations.

The lack of a common European policy on energy in the face of subzero temperatures and a Russian shut-off is creating a clamor among smaller EU states that feel literally left out in the cold. The EU has no common approach on energy, with each state fending for itself against Moscow. As in 2006, when Moscow threatened to shut off the valves, the EU is in full-crisis rhetoric mode – but pressure is building for more than talk. Bulgaria Wednesday threatened to restart a nuclear reactor whose closure was part of a deal to allow the Balkan state into the EU.

Europe is not able to speak with one powerful voice because Russia has negotiated individual deals that favor some of the larger countries, says Jean Quatremer, who runs a French blog on EU policy out of Brussels. "France, Italy, and Germany have privileged ties with Moscow, with no European coordination, and they do not intend to put those ties in jeopardy."

Nonetheless, the past month's financial and energy crises have forced Europe together, Mr. Quatremer says. "Wall Street and Vladimir Putin ... have done much for the project of greater European unity and construction."

Russia is demanding that Ukraine pay market prices for the gas and be a more responsible steward of the pipeline that carries Russian gas to the West. Last year Ukraine paid an average $179 per thousand cubic meters of gas, or less than half the rate paid by European consumers. When Kiev balked at a price hike for 2009, Gazprom cut Ukraine's share from the pipeline. The Ukrainians claim that Russian tinkering with the gas pressure caused the shortages; Moscow retorts that Ukraine is brazenly "stealing" gas.

In an official statement this week, Gazprom asked Europeans for understanding. "Gazprom realizes its responsibility for the strict execution of the gas-supply contract to its European partners, and is doing its best to minimize the negative consequences of Ukraine's illegal actions," it said. "By escalating the energy crisis, Ukraine is playing against itself."

Russian experts argue that Ukraine's actions should encourage Europeans to recognize that Kiev is not a suitable partner, whether it's a question of joining NATO or simply meeting commercial requirements. "In this tense situation – not only because of gas – Europe should see that there's no alternative to working with Russia, either now or in the near future," says Vyacheslav Igrunov, director of the independent Institute of Political and Humanitarian Studies in Moscow.

But some experts warn that an increasingly assertive Russia is generating crises with the aim of bringing independence-minded former Soviet states like Ukraine to heel. In Georgia last summer, Moscow used military methods to humiliate a rambunctious neighbor, says Tammy Lynch, an analyst with Boston University's Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology, and Policy. Summarily cutting off gas supplies through Ukraine is a similar, politically motivated tactic, she argues.

"If Russia can achieve its goals by turning off Europe's gas, even in the face of valid contracts, it will know that this type of behavior can be repeated in other disputes. Russia learned from Europe's lack of response to its actions in Georgia, and it will take a similar lesson away from this dispute."

• Staff writer Robert Marquand contributed from Paris and Vesselin Dimitrov from Bulgaria.

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