Hopes for a quick resumption of Russian gas supplies to Europe rose yesterday after Russia agreed on the terms for the deployment of monitors in Ukraine.
The Czech EU presidency announced late on Thursday an agreement had been reached with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin over the gas monitors, in a surprising turnaround hours after EU-sponsored talks in Brussels broke down over that issue.
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek and Putin agreed during a telephone conversation “on the conditions of deployment of the monitoring commission at all locations that are relevant for the flow of gas,” the EU presidency statement said.
“This deployment should lead to the Russian supplies of gas to EU member states being restored,” it said, adding that details of the mission were to be finalized yesterday when EU monitors travel to Ukraine.
The head of Russia’s Gazprom, Alexei Miller, had told journalists in Brussels earlier on Thursday that once monitors begin working, gas shipments would resume.
“Our agreement with the European Union is once the monitors are deployed and they have access, we will immediately resume gas supplies,” Miller said.
Topolanek also consulted German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had first proposed dispatching monitors, the EU presidency said.
Putin also told journalists earlier on Thursday he supported sending experts to monitor flows of Russian gas through Ukraine, saying he thought “it should be done as quickly as possible.”
Despite the announcement of the deal, there was no immediate confirmation from either Moscow or Kiev, and it remained unclear when Russia would resume energy supplies.
Russia, which cut supplies for Ukraine’s domestic market on Jan. 1 over a payments dispute, accused Ukraine of stealing gas intended for Europe and completely cut shipments on Wednesday.
Russia is the world’s biggest natural gas producer and provides about one-quarter of the gas used in the EU, or about 40 percent of the gas the bloc imports. About 80 percent of those imports pass though Ukraine.
The supply cut means thousands of people in eastern Europe have been left without gas at a time when many are facing temperatures below the freezing point.
The announcement of Thursday’s deal with Putin was all the more surprising given the acrimonious remarks by both sides following the break down of talks in Brussels.
Czech Industry Minister Martin Riman told reporters in the Belgian capital earlier that Russian energy monopoly Gazprom had rejected a proposal for independent monitors to check the flow of Russian gas through Ukraine.
EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs also said Moscow had refused to sign a deal to restore supplies to around a dozen EU nations at least in part because it wanted its own observers stationed in Ukraine.
But Miller pointed the finger at Kiev, saying it “ruined the signing of such a document” on the sending of a group of independent observers to monitor gas flows.
Ukraine agreed to the monitors on Thursday, and 10 to 12 — drawn from the European gas industry and the European Commission — were due on the ground as early as yesterday.
The monitors were tasked with checking how much gas is being piped from Russia to Ukraine, which is the main transit route for Russian gas to Europe.
While he conceded the crisis had hurt Russia’s image as a reliable gas supplier, Putin insisted Moscow was not to blame and lashed out at Western media who he accused of taking Kiev’s side.