The World from Berlin 'The Pipeline Power Play'

Russia cut off natural gas supplies passing through Ukraine to Europe on Wednesday, at a time when the continent is covered in ice with record low temperatures. The gas dispute between the countries is warming German commentators to the idea of major changes in the country's energy policies.

The gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine is already affecting Germany.

The gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine is already affecting Germany.

As the gas dispute between Gazprom and Ukraine heats up, things are getting much colder Wednesday in Western Europe as reports emerge that Russia has completely cut off gas supplies piped through Ukraine.

"It was the Russian side's decision to stop all gas deliveries to Europe (through Ukraine)," Oleh Dubina, the head of Ukraine's state-owned gas company Naftogaz, told reporters early Wednesday, according to the Associated Press. Before the reported shutoff, countries across Europe, including Turkey, had reported either substantial drops or complete halts in supplies of natural gas originating from Russia.

The escalating gas dispute has been marked by competing claims. Moscow accuses Kiev of having failed to pay for and having siphoned off gas that had been intended for Western Europe. Ukraine rejects these accusations and, instead, says that it is Russia which is not supplying enough and charging too much for gas. On January 1, after the two sides failed to reach an agreement on prices and transit fees, Gazprom cut off supplies.

The news has not been warmly received in Germany -- particularly since the country has sunk into a spectacularly deep freeze, with temperatures falling to as low as minus 29.1 degrees Celsius (minus 14.8 degrees Fahrenheit). German commentators seem less worried about the power struggle -- whose list of characters includes NATO and the European Union -- being played out between Russia and Ukraine. But they do see it as a good reason to reconsider Germany's energy policies.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"There is no doubt that Gazprom's status as a state-owned company will make it necessary to secure Vladimir Putin's approval before it plays hardball in its business dealings with Naftogaz, the Ukrainian state gas company. And Putin, of course, still has a few scores to settle with is Ukrainian pal Victor Yushchenko. But Naftogaz is also a state-run company influenced by politics and, for that reason, it can also be easily manipulated in order to generate Western solidarity for a would-be victim of Russian aggression. In the end, Yushchenko's goal is unchanged: admittance into NATO and the EU."

Gas pipelines in Europe.

Gas pipelines in Europe.

"For that reason, the prudent thing to do is to not allow ourselves to be drawn into taking sides and thereby further the political goals of either of them. We will only get past this supply crisis quickly if we refrain from exaggerating it and, instead, deal with it in the appropriate forum: This is a matter for business delegations, who can negotiate reliable trade agreements and delivery contracts. And that's where the EU can come into play, as it is essentially a political matter. Moscow and Kiev have to realize that the EU is only going to look on them as partners … when they honor both the letter and the spirit of contracts and agreements."

Right-leaning Die Welt writes:

"Once again, Russia is using its monopoly on natural gas as a weapon to collect debts but also to sour the West on making Ukraine a member of NATO."

"In Germany, the storage tanks are full. Furnaces and power plants are not going to be shut down any time soon. But the gas embargo should be a good enough reason for people to start thinking about the changes that were made in our energy policies. For the last few years, politicians working on energy policies have only focused on climate protection. And while cost-effectiveness and guaranteeing energy supplies were ignored, our dependence on natural gas from Russia rose dramatically."

"The fact that Russian recently unified the world's largest natural gas exporters into an OPEC-like cartel almost renders the West's willful embracing of its dependence a recipe for its own demise. For this reason, unless Germany's government wants to gamble away its last bit of credibility when it comes to energy politics, it is imperative that it put guaranteeing energy supplies back on the same level of political importance as climate protection."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"With every escalation of the gas conflict, more and more doubts start to form as to whether Russia is really concerned with collecting debts and getting a fair price for gas from Ukraine. It increasingly looks like the Kremlin is using this as an opportunity to inflict lasting damage on Ukraine's image in the West in the hope that it will give up its efforts to get accepted into the EU and NATO at some point in the future."

Where Germany gets its gas.

Where Germany gets its gas.

"Moscow is hoping that its claim that Ukraine is stealing gas earmarked for Europe will turn the Europeans against Kiev. But the Europeans have been very reserved in their response. And since it has failed to pull the Europeans onto its side, Moscow has apparently decided to ratchet up the conflict by reducing deliveries."

"Whichever side you agree with, the fact is that this is a demonstration -- a demonstration to the Europeans that they will pay a price for having leaders in Kiev who are critical of Moscow. … Russia, of course, has a right to demand that Ukraine pays its gas bills on time; nor should it have to sell gas below its market value. The Ukrainian government keeps pointing to an agreement from October which stipulated that the Ukraine would not have to pay the same price for gas as Europeans for another three years. In fact, Gazprom is now asking for $450 per 1,000 cubic meters -- more than people in Western Europe are paying this year."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"On the surface, the (issue) concerns the price Ukraine should pay for Russian natural gas. But the real argument … revolves around control of the transit pipelines leading to Western Europe. Moscow can't stand the thought of being dependent on its former Soviet sister country. And, in Kiev, having control of the export pipelines is viewed as a guarantee for the country's independence."

"In the short term, this conflict presents no real threat to Europe. Both Russia and Ukraine are too dependent on gas revenues to gamble on cutting off delivery to the West for longer periods of time. For that reason, there's no doubt that an agreement will come soon. …"

"But as long as Ukraine wants to play on the world stage as a sovereign state, it can never allow its bargaining chip of being a transit nation to completely slip from its hand. So, despite the fact that the end might be in sight for this current gas dispute, you can already see the next one on the horizon. …"

"For consumers of Russian gas in Europe, this realization can only lead to one thing: All the talk on the Sunday talk shows about diversifying our energy supply has to be replaced with deeds. The alternative to natural gas piped in through Ukraine is not the over-priced Baltic Sea pipeline, which would just increase dependence on Russia. Europe will only have more energy security if it finds news suppliers -- in Central Asia, in the Caucasus, in Africa and, in the long-term, particularly in Iran."

-- Josh Ward, 1:00 p.m. CET


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