Twice in the past 14 years, a dispute between Ukraine and Russia has led Russia to cut off natural gas flows to Ukraine and Europe. The stage is being set for another cut-off in January. The European Union wants to ensure that gas continues to flow, so EU officials will attempt at a mid-September meeting to broker an agreement. But they face a difficult slog.
The Looming Conflict
Gazprom, a large Russian parastatal, now transits a significant amount of gas to European destinations via Ukrainian pipelines. The volume totaled 87 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2018, one-third of Russian gas exports to Europe.
However, the contract that governs this gas transit expires at the end of 2019. Kyiv wants to replace the current agreement with another long-term contract, preferably for 10 years. Moscow, on the other hand, wants just one year.
Russia hopes to bring Nord Stream 2 —which runs from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea— online in 2020. (The U.S. government has raised the possibility of sanctions against companies involved with Nord Stream 2, but the pipeline is already 75% complete.) Moscow also hopes that Turk Stream —two pipelines running under the Black Sea from Russia to Turkey— will reach full capacity next year. Nord Stream 2 will have a capacity of 55 bcm of gas per year. Turk Stream consists of two pipelines, each with an annual capacity of 15.75 bcm. The Turks plan to use half of the gas domestically and export the rest to southeastern Europe. If Gazprom can move an additional 70.75 BCM of gas to Europe via Nord Stream 2 and the Turk Stream pipelines after 2020, its need for the Ukrainian pipelines will drastically decline.
Gas fights between Kyiv and Moscow are nothing new. In January 2006, as a result of a price dispute, Gazprom reduced gas flows to Ukraine, charged that Kyiv was siphoning off transit gas intended for Europe, and further cut gas supplies. Fortunately, the sides reached agreement after a few days, and gas flows resumed.
A second fight broke out in January 2009. Moscow again reduced and then ended all gas flows to Ukraine, including transit gas. This time, the dispute lasted three weeks. During a bitterly cold stretch of weather, the cut-off caused particular hardships for Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece.