Russia-EU summit to focus on energy security
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Energy issues are expected to top the agenda at an EU-Russian summit in Stockholm on Wednesday as Europe seeks to avoid the interruptions in the supply of Russian natural gas that it saw last winter.
European and Russian leaders meet in Stockholm on Wednesday for talks expected to focus on energy security as winter sets in across the continent and Europe seeks to avoid interruptions in the supply of Russian natural gas that it saw last winter.
A spat between Moscow and Kiev last year over energy payments – and accusations that Ukraine was siphoning off gas – led Moscow to halt transit, leaving parts of Europe without their Russian energy quotas for more than two weeks in January. One-fourth of the gas consumed by the European Union comes from Russia, 80 percent of it via pipelines through Ukraine.
Russia and the EU took steps toward ensuring steady energy flows on Monday by signing an agreement to notify each other of any potential disruptions to oil, gas or electricity supplies.
“An energy crisis like the one the EU suffered in January is harmful for supply, transit and consuming countries alike,” said EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs in a statement after signing the agreement in Moscow. “We need to do everything necessary to make sure that such a situation never happens again.”
But in recent weeks Russia has warned that a similar scenario could already be unfolding, noting that Ukraine will likely have difficulty paying its energy bills this winter. Last week Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Moscow would have no qualms about halting European supplies again if it caught Ukraine stealing from its pipelines.
Well aware that it is in European interests to avoid this prospect, Russian officials have called on the EU to help guarantee that Ukraine can make its payments. The EU in recent years has established closer economic and political ties with Ukraine.
“We call for the European Union to actively join in a package of preemptive measures, including financial assistance, to ensure uninterrupted transit of energy resources through Ukraine,” Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's EU envoy, told journalists on Friday.
Chizhov said Russia would push this initiative at the Stockholm summit, although the EU’s Piebalgs has already rejected the idea of giving Ukraine a loan.
The race for new routes
Russia is, quite literally, looking for a way around the problem. Last week Slovenia signed on to Russia’s plans to build an alternative pipeline that will bypass Ukraine and instead deliver Russian and Central Asian gas to Europe via the Balkans. Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary and Serbia have already joined plans for the South Stream pipeline, expected to become operational in 2015. Russia’s Nord Stream pipeline will eventually send gas to Germany under the Baltic Sea.
But even while Russia looks to make its supplies more secure, Europe is diversifying its energy sources to be less reliant on Moscow. The Nabucco pipeline will bring Central Asian gas to Europe through Turkey beginning in 2014 and will compete directly with Russia’s South Stream supplies. Plans for these rival pipelines are likely to be a point of contention this week even as Moscow and Brussels look to increase their energy cooperation.
Complicating negotiations further will be Sweden’s reported plans to pressure Moscow to take concrete steps to improve its human rights record, particularly in the North Caucasus.
“We welcome President Medvedev's comments on democracy and human rights but this has to be followed up with clear deeds,” Sweden's European affairs minister, Cecilia Malmstrom, said recently. Sweden is currently at the helm of the EU’s rotating presidency.
“We’d like to highlight recent events in north Caucasus, where we've seen violence against human rights defenders, repression of minorities,” Malmstrom added, noting that these trends can also be seen in Russia proper.
But Russia may not take too kindly to EU suggestions that it should mend its ways.
“Certainly I’m looking forward to a constructive discussion, rather than a heated exchange of criticism,” Chizhov said on Friday.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will give a joint press conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt at 3 p.m. (GMT+1) on Wednesday.