Russia, Ukraine trade blame as Europe sees no gas

MOSCOW (AP) -- Russia and Ukraine hotly blamed each other Tuesday as Russia restarted natural gas supplies but little or no gas flowed toward Europe. EU officials criticized both nations for their intransigence and eastern European nations scrambled for a sixth day to find heat.

Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom said it began pumping gas to Europe at 10 a.m. (0700 GMT, 2 a.m. EST) Tuesday after cutting off supplies Jan. 7 amid a pricing dispute with Ukraine.

But European Union officials said no gas was flowing and their monitors were not allowed full access to either nation's gas control rooms so outside experts could not figure out what was going on or who was to blame.

"The information that we have from our monitors in Russia is that little or no gas is currently flowing and we are not at this stage jumping to conclusions as to why this is the case," said EU spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen. "This situation is obviously very serious and needs to improve rapidly."

Amid freezing winter temperatures, a war of words erupted.

Russia's state gas monopoly Gazprom claimed Ukraine was stealing the gas and taking orders from the United States in the crisis. Ukraine accused Russia of sending the gas on a nearly impossible journey from incompatible pipelines and of using the crisis to try to wrest control of Ukraine's vast pipeline network.

In the meantime, several European nations were growing desperate. Bulgaria has lost all of its gas supplies and has only two days worth of reserves. Slovakia, which has lost 97 percent of its gas supplies, vowed Tuesday it was ready to restart an aging Soviet nuclear power plant despite EU objections.

Sales of electric heaters have soared and thousands of businesses in eastern Europe have been forced to cut production or even shut down. Millions of people have been affected by the heating crisis or involuntary layoffs.

Gazprom's Deputy Chairman Alexander Medvedev claimed Tuesday that Ukraine's pipeline system had failed to carry gas on to Europe. Russia supplies about one-quarter of the EU's natural gas, 80 percent of it shipped through Ukraine's vast pipeline network.

"Ukraine didn't open any export pipelines," he told reporters. "We don't have the physical opportunity to pump the gas to European customers."

Underscoring political tensions behind the gas dispute, Medvedev accused Washington of encouraging Ukraine's defiance. "It looks like they are dancing to music that is orchestrated not in Ukraine," he said Tuesday.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the Russian accusation "bizarre ... totally without foundation."

Ukrainian energy adviser Bohdan Sokolovsky said Russia deliberately shipped the gas along a technically arduous route that requires Ukraine to cut out domestic consumers out before it can deliver gas to the Balkans. He said a gas entry point on the Russian border at Sudzha and a gas pumping station near the Romanian border where Gazprom wants its gas delivered are not linked by an export pipeline.

"They are continuing their campaign to discredit Ukraine," Sokolovsky told The Associated Press.

Medvedev insisted that Russia deliberately chose Sudzha because it is an export pipeline with direct access to nations hard-hit in the dispute, including Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey.

In Kiev, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko accused Russia of using the gas contract dispute to try to wrest control of the pipelines from Ukraine. Russia stopped gas supplies to Ukraine itself on Jan. 1 as it pressured Kiev to pay more for the gas.

EU spokesman Ferran Tarradellas Espuny said both nations had not given EU monitors full access to their natural gas control rooms. "Access to the dispatching rooms is essential to know what is actually happening," he said.

But Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin disputed the claim about monitors. "This information is not corroborated," he said during an evening visit to Gazprom's main control room in Moscow.

Putin also spoke to his Bulgarian and Slovak counterparts, urging them to increase the pressure on Ukraine to ensure gas flow to Europe. Both are flying to Moscow on Wednesday to discuss the crisis, Putin said.

Russia has accused Ukraine of stealing gas intended for Europe and only restarted supplies after a EU-led monitoring mission was deployed to gas metering and compressor stations across Ukraine. Ukraine has denied the charges, claiming that Russia has not sent enough so-called "technical gas" to pump the rest of the gas west to Europe.

The two nations disagree over who should pay for "technical gas" and the amount of that gas needed is substantial. Ukraine's sprawling, inefficient pipeline network needs 21 million cubic meters of gas per day for transit - almost twice as much as the 12 million cubic meters consumed daily by Bulgaria.

Russia has used the gas dispute to push for new gas pipelines under the Baltic and the Black Sea that would bypass Ukraine. But EU officials say the crisis should encourage a search for independent energy sources and supply routes - such as the U.S.-backed Nabucco pipeline via Turkey - that would carry Caspian energy to Europe and circumvent Russia.

Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Endowment said the dispute should push the EU toward finally creating a unified European gas market that would reduce Russia's clout as an energy supplier. The EU will also have to reconsider the options of nuclear and coal-fired plants, she said.

Relations between the two ex-Soviet neighbors have been strained since the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine led to the election of a pro-Western government in Kiev. Ukraine's efforts to join NATO and its support for the former Soviet republic of Georgia in its August war with Russia also angered the Kremlin.

Russia will not send natural gas to Ukraine for domestic consumption until the deadlock is resolved over what Ukraine should pay for Russian gas in 2009 and what Russia should pay for using Ukraine's pipelines.

Ukraine last year paid $179.50 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas and Yushchenko said Tuesday that Ukraine will pay no more than $210 in 2009. Russia wants Ukraine to pay market price for gas, about the $450 that European customers pay.