The crisis over Russian oil supplies escalated into a full-scale confrontation with Europe yesterday as Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, condemned Moscow's decision to turn off the tap as "unacceptable". She said Russia's tactics were destroying its credibility as a reliable energy partner.
The comments came after Russia halted supplies to several countries, including Poland, after a dispute with Belarus over exports through the Druzhba pipeline. Moscow, which said it was forced to act because Belarus was illegally siphoning off oil, dug in yesterday, threatening to throttle oil production in an effort to pile more pressure on the government in Minsk.
Germany holds the EU presidency and, after meetings with the European Commission in Berlin, Ms Merkel took an uncharacteristically tough stand with Russia over the interruption of supplies which has caused acute alarm in eastern Europe. The Druzhba - or "friendship" - pipeline system supplies Poland, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Ms Merkel's condemnation is a significant shift in rhetoric from Germany which has worked hard to build its energy partnership with Russia. To the anger of its eastern neighbour, Germany has developed a pipeline project with Russia bringing energy under the Baltic, bypassing Poland.
This week's crisis is reminiscent of a stand-off last year between Russia and Ukraine that also hit gas supplies to Europe, spurring EU efforts to forge a common energy policy.
Ms Merkel said it was unacceptable for Russia to sever supplies without warning and she warned that it "destroys trust and erodes trust for the future". Consultation was, she argued, the "very minimum", adding: "If there are bumps in the road it needs to be part of normal life - as it is within the EU - to consult with one's partners."
A similar message came from the European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, who said that, while there was no immediate risk to supply, it was "not acceptable for suppliers or transit countries to take measures without consultation". He said the episode reinforced the need for an energy and climate action plan, which will be put forward today, proposing a diversification of energy sources, a unilateral cut in greenhouse gas emissions of 20 per cent, and the liberalisation of energy markets.
The crisis has also brought into sharp focus the question of how to manage Europe's fractious relationship with Russia which has been buoyed by its economic power as an energy supplier. Ms Merkel will travel to Moscow later this month to try to start negotiations on a partnership and co-operation agreement with the Russians, though this is currently being blocked by Poland. Moscow has been adept at exploiting divisions among EU nations by offering preferential deals bilaterally to big member states such as Germany and France.
The European Commission has summoned its Oil Supply Group of national experts to a meeting tomorrow to discuss the implications of the pipeline shutdown and "to possibly explore measures in the case of any shortage of oil products".
Officials said they wanted to verify the precise causes of the interruption before deciding what action, if any, to take against Russia and Belarus.
There was no sign of compromise from the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who threatened to trim output. The Kremlin also said it would find other ways of supplying EU countries though that may prove difficult since the Druzhba pipeline carries two-fifths of Russia's total oil exports and supplies Germany with about a 20 per cent of its needs. It has a capacity of more than 2 million barrels per day of which 1.4 million to 1.6 million go directly to consumers in the EU, representing about 12.5 per cent of oil consumption in the 27 nations.
The Polish media reported that Germany had been spared most of the impact of the cut in production because it was made on a rare day in which the Germans were not due to take oil from the pipeline.
Ms Merkel sought to reassure Poland - with whom Germany's relations are difficult - that it would not be abandoned. She argued that the EU was about "a Europe of solidarity and not leaving others in the lurch".Reuse content