Page last updated at 11:46 GMT, Thursday, 15 January 2009

No clear winner in Europe's gas game

The European Commission has warned Russian and Ukrainian gas companies of legal action over a dispute which has left many Europeans without heat. Gabriel Gatehouse has been following the row.

Workers seen near a pipeline at the Russian gas compressor station in Sudzha near the Russian-Ukrainian border (January 11, 2009)
Russia and Ukraine have disagreed over gas payments
Valentin Zemlyansky looked tired and more than a little harassed.

"There's an information war going on here," he told us, "and you people are on the front line."

Mr Zemlyansky is the official spokesman for Naftogaz, the Ukrainian state energy company.

He was facing a bank of television cameras and correspondents desperate for something, anything, to report.

We were crowded into the corridor of a small, isolated two-storey building, which stands in the middle of snow-bound fields just across the Russian border.

This is Sudzha, a gas pumping station operated by Gazprom, the vast and powerful state-run Russian gas monopoly.

PR exercise

Outside, it was getting dark, and the icy wind off the steppe whipped up the fine, powdery snow into sharp bursts that lashed at the idle pipelines and stung the face. It was coming to the end of a very long day.

Early that morning, along with around 20 other journalists, I had been invited to board a bus in Kiev heading east.

The idea was for us to join three international monitors and travel with them to the pumping station. There, with any luck, we would witness the resumption of gas supplies to Europe.

Map of Russia

As a PR exercise, it seemed straightforward. But, at some point during the seven-hour journey to the Russian border, it became clear that not everything was going to go to plan.

Two of the monitors were experts in their field, representatives from European gas companies. They looked deeply uncomfortable from the start. Their suits and ties, their fresh faces, seemed out of place among the scruffier, sleepy-looking hacks.

"Could I ask them a few questions?" I enquired. They stiffened.

"It's so political, you see," one of them explained nervously.

Of course, I understood. It had, after all, taken days of frantic European shuttle diplomacy for Moscow and Kiev to agree on this monitoring mission.

So I thought I would stick to the facts:

"How long did they expect to be staying?"

No comment.

"What does a gas tap look like when it is switched on?"

They really could not say.

"OK then, what were their names?" That information, too, it turned out, was so sensitive they would rather not divulge.

Unanswered questions

If the Ukrainians, or indeed the European Commission, were engaged in information warfare, they were not providing us with much ammunition.

We stopped for lunch on the way. Those with television cameras worried about the fading light. Then, it took an hour and a half to cross the Russian border.

Naftogaz spokesman Valentin Zemlyansky talks to the media in Kiev, Ukraine, March 5, 2008 (AP/Sergei Chuzavkov)
Mr Zemlyansky has had to field questions from the media

From the windows of the bus, we could see the giant gas pipes just a few hundred metres further on. The cameramen looked at the sky and fidgeted.

Finally we were through, and in an instant we arrived at the gates to the Sudzha pumping station.

The film crews and journalists poured off the bus, jostling each other for positions to capture pictures of the pipelines before darkness fell.

A man appeared in a fur cap. He said he was the director of the station.

"Had the gas been turned back on?" the press pack wanted to know.

"No," he replied, "it hadn't."

"So would it be turned back on now that the monitors had arrived?"

He smiled: "Not today," he said.

He was waiting for instructions from Moscow. Instead, he could offer us tea, coffee, and a table-full of sausage sandwiches and pies, courtesy of Gazprom, and all in the warmth and comfort of his office.

So we had gone on a press tour with EU monitors who had not only refused to talk to the press, but when they arrived at their destination, had nothing to monitor.

'Testy exchanges'

Nobody knew anything except for the incontrovertible fact that the taps were still firmly switched off.

Poor Valentin Zemlyansky, the Ukrainian energy spokesman had to cope with the brunt of the frustration.

One of the customs officers poured a round into small glasses and proposed a toast to friendship between the Slavic nations

There were testy exchanges with a reporter from Russian state TV, before we were quickly bundled back onto the coach for the return journey, leaving the miserable-looking monitors behind.

But it was not quite over yet.

Getting back across the Russian border was far quicker than before.

On the Ukrainian side, though, it was "everybody out" - up to an office on the first floor. But the purpose of this invitation was not a search or interrogation, but hospitality.

Mindful perhaps of Gazprom's culinary offering, the Ukrainian border guards had matched the Russians, sandwich for sandwich, pie for pie.

And they had gone one further. Three large bottles of vodka, adorned the long table around which we all congregated.

One of the customs officers poured a round into small glasses and proposed a toast to friendship between the Slavic nations.

But, it seemed disingenuous.

This performance was all part of the PR campaign to win the gas war. And, as we downed our shots, neat as is the custom here, I could find no clear winner, in that day's battle at least.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 15 January, 2009 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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