Are we facing a fresh gas crisis this winter?

 During recent weeks, the Russian government has stepped-up the pressure on Ukraine, saying that if it fails to pay its gas bills, Russia will turn off the taps to the Ukrainian pipes that deliver fuel to Europe.

Vladimir Putin, Russian prime minister, said in early November: “If transit counties fulfil their obligations, there won’t be any problems from our side. As soon as there’s any siphoning, we’ll cut transmission.”

Last winter Bulgaria, Moldova and Slovakia were left shivering, and Hungary, Romania, Poland and Macedonia reported steep drops in their gas supplies.

Speaking at a Friends of Europe conference on 18 November, Didier Houssin, director of energy markets and security at the International Energy Association (IEA), added little hope: “Since the gas crisis last year, Ukraine has paid its monthly bills, but its economy remains precarious. Ukraine is unlikely to be able to pay-up as gas prices increase in-line with the recent rise in oil prices”, he said.

Striking a more positive note, Houssin said European countries are now better prepared with improved connections, more energy terminals and fuller stocks after the economic crisis dampened demand. In Bulgaria, one of the countries hardest hit by the gas cut, the government has said it has enough stocks to last for nine months.

Dipping its toes into the debate, the European Commission announced an EU-Russia ‘early warning system’, which would give the EU a notice period before supplies run thin. “I am confident that this mechanism will be a powerful tool to prevent the transit or export of energy to the EU being reduced or cut off,” Andris Piebalgs, European Commissioner for energy, said on 16 November.

But the system’s very existence is easily interpreted as a worrying sign. Christian Kjaer, Chief Executive of European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) said: “Russia and Ukraine still have the power to leave Europe in the dark.” Wind power, along with other indigenously-produced renewables, has the potential to significantly reduce Europe’s dependency on imported energy and with it the recurring pattern of winter gas disputes.

Payments due to Russia from Ukraine fall on 7 December 2009 and 7 January 2010.