KIEV, Feb. 11 - President Viktor Yushchenko will travel to Moscow Tuesday for a one-on-one meeting with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin amid signs that the bilateral natural gas dispute between their two countries has been deepening, Yushchenko’s office said Monday.
The visit comes on the date on which Russian gas monopoly Gazprom has threatened to restrict gas supplies Ukraine unless the country takes steps to clear what it estimates to be a $1.5 billion debt.
Yushchenko’s visit to Moscow was long planned and was aimed at discussing a wide range of issues, from trade to defense, but the emergence and the escalation of the gas dispute will now dominate the agenda.
“This [gas] issue will inevitably arise in the dialog between the two presidents,” Yushchenko said Monday in comments released by his press service.
Yushchenko spent most of the day on Monday holding a meeting with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Parliamentary Speaker Arseniy Yatseniuk and discussing Ukraine’s options in the escalating gas dispute.
A Ukrainian team, led by Oleh Dubyna, the head of Naftogaz Ukrayiny, the national oil and gas company, is currently in Moscow holding talks with Gazprom, officials said.
The parties made little progress in the talks, which are now expected to resume on Tuesday morning, according to a source at Naftogaz.
The progress is watched carefully in the European Union amid fears that it may lead to disruptions of gas supplies to the EU. Ukraine moves up to 80% of Russia’s Europe-bound gas.
Meanwhile, Gazprom announced on Monday that it will postpone for eight hours the deadline for cutting gas supplies to Ukraine on Tuesday in the event no deal has been reached on the debt settlement.
Gazprom said in a statement it will cut the supplies of Russian-origin gas to Ukraine, which the Russian company says accounts for about 25% of Ukraine’s overall gas imports, from 18:00 local time (15:00 GMT).
Since Yushchenko’s visit to Moscow was earlier scheduled for two days, on Tuesday and Wednesday, there is a chance that Gazprom may resort to cutting gas supplies during Yushchenko’s visit.
In the worst case scenario, Yushchenko could even cut his visit short, analysts said.
The office of Yushchenko on Monday reacted strongly to the Gazprom threat calling it “pressure” aimed at helping the Russian company in the gas dispute.
“I want to remind that Naftogaz has no direct relations with Gazprom,” Oleksandr Shlapak, the first deputy chief of staff of the Yushchenko’s office, said. “That’s why any statements by Gazprom officials we view as certain pressure in order to solve the situation with maximum benefit for this company.”
The gas dispute accelerated last week when Gazprom had warned that gas supplies to Ukraine will be cut unless progress is made by Monday to clear the $1.5 billion debt.
Gazprom explained the rapid debt accumulation by the fact that Ukraine had allegedly consumed in January the more expensive Russian gas rather then the cheaper gas from Turkmenistan.
Gazprom argued it was forced to supply its Russian gas because Turkmenistan had allegedly reduced supplies due to cold weather in the Central Asia. (sb/ez)