AFP - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered gas giant Gazprom to start cutting supplies to Ukraine bound for European consumers in response to Kiev's alleged siphoning from pipelines.
At a meeting in Putin's residence outside Moscow, Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller said the company would do its best to make up for the shortfall by sending more gas to Europe through Belarus, Poland and Turkey.
"Start reducing it from today," Putin told Miller, referring to a plan outlined by the Gazprom supremo to cut volumes of natural gas shipped through Ukraine by amounts equivalent to those Moscow has accused Ukraine of stealing.
Supplies of Russian gas to southeastern Europe dropped by an average 24.7 percent overnight Sunday-Monday amid the row, a local unit of Gazprom said Monday.
Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Romania and Turkey saw a fall of about 16 million cubic metres of gas between Sunday and Monday morning, according to Igor Yelkin, a representative from the Gazprom subsidiary which oversees distribution in the whole region.
Romania saw the biggest drop in supplies, by 33.8 percent, followed by Turkey, by 22 percent, and Greece, by 15.9 percent, Yelkin told Bulgaria's BTA news agency.
"The situation is changing every hour as Ukraine is switching compressor stations on and off without warning," he added.
According to Yelkin, the Ukrainian side could reduce the volumes even further.
Czech gas giant RWE Transgas said that gas supplies it receives from Russia via Ukraine fell by 9.5 percent on Monday after a 5 percent drop the day before.
Russian gas deliveries to Hungary have fallen by over 20 percent, Hungary's energy minister said Monday, confirming an earlier announcement about an impending cut.
Russia cut its gas supply to Ukraine's domestic market on January 1 as part of a bitter payment dispute and has since accused Ukraine of illegally removing gas transiting its country for clients further downstream in Europe.
Ukraine denies stealing and has accused Russia of engineering the crisis.
The European Union depends on Russia for around a quarter of its total gas supplies, some 80 percent of which is pumped through Ukraine. A similar Russia-Ukraine dispute three years ago disrupted supplies across Europe.
Eager to avoid any panic on the markets or in European households during a cold snap, the European Commission said gas stocks were high despite some drops in supply.
"There have been some irregularities but there is no substantial disruption of supply to member states at this point of time," said Ferran Tarradellas, a spokesman for EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs.
"The level of the stocks are quite high," he assured. "This is why we are confident that there is going to be no problem to supply in the coming weeks for consumers in Europe."
EU envoys were nonetheless holding a hastily-arranged meeting in Brussels on the dispute on Monday, while an EU delegation including EU Director General for Energy Matthias Ruete headed to Kiev to discuss the problem.
Miller told Putin on Monday that Ukraine had since January 1 "stolen" 65.3 million cubic metres of gas that were supposed to have flowed through pipelines that cross its territory on to customers in the European Union.
Referring to the debt Gazprom says it is owed by Ukraine that is at the heart of the dispute, Miller said it was still above 600 million dollars, but added: "If they continue to illegally take gas it will soon be billions."
Despite its heavy reliance on Russian gas imports, the EU has so far tried to avoid being dragged into being an arbiter in the dispute.
As the crisis entered its fifth day, Russia and Ukraine continued their slanging match, accusing each other of being responsible for supply problems.
Speaking to journalists in Paris, Gazprom deputy chief executive Alexander Medvedev accused Ukraine on Monday of stealing 50 million cubic metres of gas and withholding deliveries to EU countries.
Ukrainian gas company Naftogaz in turn accused the Moldovan unit of Gazprom of siphoning off gas bound for the Balkans, affecting supplies further downstream to Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Romania and Turkey.