Natural gas
Steven Pifer
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Twice in the past 14 years, a dispute between Ukraine and Russia has led Russia to cut off natural gas flows to Ukraine and Europe. The stage is being set for another cut-off in January. The European Union wants to ensure that gas continues to flow, so EU officials will attempt at a mid-September meeting to broker an agreement. But they face a difficult slog.


Gazprom, a large Russian parastatal, now transits a significant amount of gas to European destinations via Ukrainian pipelines. The volume totaled 87 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2018, one-third of Russian gas exports to Europe.

However, the contract that governs this gas transit expires at the end of 2019. Kyiv wants to replace the current agreement with another long-term contract, preferably for 10 years. Moscow, on the other hand, wants just one year.

Russia hopes to bring Nord Stream 2 — which runs from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea — online in 2020. (The U.S. government has raised the possibility of sanctions against companies involved with Nord Stream 2, but the pipeline is already 75% complete.) Moscow also hopes that Turk Stream — two pipelines running under the Black Sea from Russia to Turkey — will reach full capacity next year. Nord Stream 2 will have a capacity of 55 bcm of gas per year. Turk Stream consists of two pipelines, each with an annual capacity of 15.75 bcm. The Turks plan to use half of the gas domestically and export the rest to southeastern Europe. If Gazprom can move an additional 70.75 BCM of gas to Europe via Nord Stream 2 and the Turk Stream pipelines after 2020, its need for the Ukrainian pipelines will drastically decline.

Gas fights between Kyiv and Moscow are nothing new. In January 2006, as a result of a price dispute, Gazprom reduced gas flows to Ukraine, charged that Kyiv was siphoning off transit gas intended for Europe, and further cut gas supplies. Fortunately, the sides reached agreement after a few days, and gas flows resumed.

A second fight broke out in January 2009. Moscow again reduced and then ended all gas flows to Ukraine, including transit gas. This time, the dispute lasted three weeks. During a bitterly cold stretch of weather, the cut-off caused particular hardships for Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece.


The gas relationship between Ukraine and Russia has been complex, and it has changed dramatically over the past three decades. After regaining independence in 1991, Kyiv depended hugely on gas imports from Russia or from Central Asia via Russia — 50-60 bcm per year — as its domestic production met only one-fourth of Ukraine’s needs. That dependence gave Moscow leverage over Ukraine.

Kyiv nevertheless had leverage over Russia, which needed Ukraine’s pipelines to move gas to Europe. The European market mattered greatly for Gazprom. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Russian energy giant sold one-third of the gas it produced to Europe. Most of Gazprom’s gas was sold inside Russia at artificially low prices, so European sales were key to the company’s financial health.

The 2006 and 2009 gas fights led both sides to reconsider their dependency on the other. Gazprom began to develop plans for and build undersea pipelines to Germany and Turkey to circumvent Ukraine. By 2021, Gazprom will need Ukrainian pipelines to move, at most, relatively marginal amounts of gas.

For their part, Ukrainians began taking steps to substantially reduce gas consumption and their energy dependency on Russia. Rising prices for Russian gas motivated companies to install energy-efficient equipment. Ukraine now consumes about 30 bcm of gas per year (it no longer provides gas for Crimea, which Russia illegally seized in 2014, or for that part of the Donbas region occupied by Russian and Russian proxy forces). Less than one-third of the 30 bcm is imported, and since 2015, Ukraine no longer imports gas directly from Russia, getting gas instead from Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia (ironically, much of this gas is Russian gas exported to Central Europe, from where it is exported back to Ukraine).


Seeking to avoid another gas fight, the European Union hopes to broker a new agreement between Kyiv and Moscow. EU Commission officials have suggested a 10-year contract providing for a minimum transit volume of 60 bcm per year through Ukrainian pipes. Such an arrangement would win support from key EU members such as Germany; Chancellor Merkel favors completion of Nord Stream 2 but has also said that substantial flows of gas should continue to move via Ukraine.

This would be a good arrangement for Kyiv, though Russian agreement appears unlikely. Moscow’s decisions to build undersea pipelines to Germany and Turkey were not motivated solely — and perhaps not mainly — by commercial considerations. The Ukrainian pipeline system could have been upgraded at a fraction of the cost of building the new pipelines. The Kremlin, however, sought to gain a position in which it could pressure Kyiv by cutting off gas without affecting flows to elsewhere in Europe.

Moscow wants to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit, and it sees gas as a possible tool. If it has no gas sales to Ukraine, it can still end transit through the country, cutting off the substantial transit fees (about $3 billion per year) that it now pays Kyiv. Russia has proposed a one-year agreement, apparently to bridge from the end of 2019 to the beginning of 2021 when it hopes to have Nord Stream 2 and Turk Stream operating at full capacity. At that point, Gazprom could all but end gas transit via Ukraine.

If Kyiv rejects a one-year agreement, which looks quite possible, negotiations could quickly hit an impasse, and the possibility of another disruption in gas flows to Europe will arise. Finding a solution to avert such an outcome confronts EU negotiators with a tough challenge.


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Mired in political gridlock, battered by economic crisis, and uncertain about its foreign relations, Ukraine faces a difficult year, a year that will end with a presidential election.  How is Ukraine coping with these difficulties?  And how should the West respond in helping Ukraine meet the challenges before it?


Ambassador Pifer begins his assessment of Ukraine’s challenges by identifying the four key issues it will have to face this coming year. Firstly, Mr. Pifer argues that a serious problem is the incompatible relations between Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yushchenko, and Ukraine’s prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. Mr Pifer identifies the energy situation as a key battle issue between the two. Most seriously, Mr. Pifer believes that such feuding compromises Ukraine’s ability to deal with serious issues such as energy and the economic crisis. In addition, Russia seems to play the two against each other. Therefore, Mr. Pifer argues that the West begin by getting the two to cooperate on key issues. Mr. Pifer also stresses the need for a coordinated US-EU stance and also proposes the possible revival of a US-Ukraine bi-national commission.

An aspect of Ukraine clearly being affected by this feud is Ukraine’s handling of the economy. Mr. Pifer examines how Ukraine was suddenly hit hard by the global financial crisis in October 2008. This was partly caused by a fall in the global demand for steel, one of Ukraine’s key exports, and led to further inflation and investors avoiding the country. Ukraine also received $16 billion from the IMF on the conditions of having almost no budget deficit and fell short of this condition earlier this year leading to a delay in the transfer of funds from the IMF. While some believe in a possible recovery in 2010, Mr. Pifer argues the West can help in several ways. Firstly, it must push Ukraine to continue to follow IMF conditions to receive the vital funding. Mr. Pifer also proposes an international donor conference for Ukraine to receive the additional money it needs but will not receive from the IMF. He argues for the abolition of Ukraine’s “communist” commercial code and the freer sale of land to get the agricultural market flowing.

Another possible crisis point is Ukraine’s energy situation. Mr. Pifer examines Ukraine’s dependence on Russia and how during the January crisis it did not pass any reserve gas onto its Western neighbors, weakening its international reputation. Mr. Pifer does recognize Ukraine’s efforts to lessen its use of natural gas, particularly due to the increase in prices. However, he argues Ukraine is still very vulnerable, and this is not helped by the fact that Ukraine’s own energy agency is nearing bankruptcy as it maintains unsustainably low prices. Therefore, Mr. Pifer believes the first step forward is, although tough, for energy prices to be raised. Then, the West should offer technical assistance to improve the efficiency of Ukraine’s energy system. Finally, Ukraine should seek EU funding to modernize its pipelines.

The final issue Mr. Pifer addresses is Ukraine’s complex foreign policy. Mr. Pifer explains Ukraine’s difficult relationship with Russia is marred by differences over energy, NATO, and Georgia. Mr. Pifer also cites Russia’s resources in Ukraine to stir tension if it wants to weaken the country. Another serious aspect is Ukraine’s uncertain relationship with the EU consisting of support from the Baltic states and reluctance from the Western states such as France and Germany. Mr. Pifer feels it is important for the West not to give up on Ukraine but to push the country to forge a consistent line between president and prime minister. The US should also let Ukraine know how much support it would receive were it to become involved in an economic conflict with Russia.

Mr. Pifer concludes by stating that the US should be clear that this new attempt at resetting relations might not survive a Russian-initiated crisis with Ukraine.

In answering the audience's multitude of questions, a variety of issues were raised. Discussion included key points such as the receptiveness of Ukrainian leaders to international advice or the impact of Ukraine's membership of the World Trade Organization. One issue Mr. Pifer particularly emphasized was his belief that Ukraine should not be part of NATO as long as public opinion stands against it.

about the speaker

Steven Pifer is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and a (non-resident) senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. A retired Foreign Service officer, his more than 25 years with the State Department focused on U.S. relations with the former Soviet Union and Europe, as well as on arms control and security issues. His assignments included deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs (2001-2004), ambassador to Ukraine (1998-2000), and special assistant to the president and National Security Council senior director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia (1996-1997). He also served at the U.S. embassies in Warsaw, Moscow and London, as well as with the U.S. delegation to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces negotiations in Geneva. He holds a B.A. in economics from Stanford University, where he later spent a year as a visiting scholar at Stanford's Institute for International Studies. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Sponsored by the Forum on Contemporary Europe and the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies.

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Steven Pifer Visiting Fellow, Brookings Institution; Senior Advisor, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Former US Ambassador to Ukraine (1998-2000) Speaker
In the aftermath of the financial collapse of August 1998, it looked as if Russia's day as a superpower had come and gone. That it should recover and reassert itself after less than a decade is nothing short of an economic and political miracle.
Marshall Goldman incorporated extensive research, including several interviews with Vladimir Putin, in his new revealing book that chronicles Russia's dramatic reemergence on the world stage, illuminating the key reason for its rebirth: the use of its ever-expanding energy wealth to reassert its traditional great power ambitions. Goldman traces how this has come to be, and how Russia is using its oil-based power as a lever in world politics. Goldman provides an informative overview of oil in Russia, traces Vladimir Putin's determined effort to reign in the upstart oil oligarchs who had risen to power in the post-Soviet era, and describes Putin's efforts to renationalize and refashion Russia's industries into state companies and his vaunted "national champions" corporations like Gazprom, largely owned by the state, who do the bidding of the state. Goldman shows how Russia paid off its international debt and has gone on to accumulate the world's third largest holdings of foreign currency reserves--all by becoming the world's largest producer of petroleum and the world's second largest exporter. Today, Vladimir Putin and his cohort have stabilized the Russian economy and recentralized power in Moscow, and fossil fuels (oil and natural gas) have made it all possible.
The story of oil and gas in Russia is a tale of discovery, intrigue, corruption, wealth, misguidance, greed, patronage, nepotism, and power. Marshall Goldman tells this story with panache, as only one of the world's leading authorities on Russia could.

About the Speaker
Marshall I. Goldman is the Kathryn W. Davis Professor of Soviet Economics Emeritus at Wellesley College and until he retired, the Associate Director of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University. He earned a B.S. in economics from the WhartonSchool of the University of Pennsylvania (1952), and an M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University, as well as an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1985. He has also been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Dr. Goldman’s publications include The Piratization of the Russian Economy, (Routledge April 2003), Lost Opportunity: Why Economic Reforms in Russia Have Not Worked (W.W. Norton, 1994), What Went Wrong with Perestroika: The Rise and Fall of Mikhail Gorbachev (W.W. Norton, 1991), Gorbachev’s Challenge: Economic Reform in the Age of High Technology (1987), The USSR in Crisis: The Failure of an Economic Model (1983), The Enigma of Soviet Petroleum: Half Empty or Half Full? ((1980), Détente and Dollars: Doing Business with the Soviets (1975), The Spoils of Progress: Environmental Pollution in the Soviet Union (1972), and Ecology and Economics: Controlling Pollution in the 70’s (1972). Dr. Goldman has published widely in Foreign Affairs, Atlantic Monthly, Boston Globe, Harvard Business Review, New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. He is a frequent guest on CNN and “Good Morning America” and has appeared on “NewsHour”, “Crossfire”, “Face the Nation”, “The Today Show”, “Nightline”, and NPR.

Dr. Goldman’s latest book, to be published by Oxford University Press in April, 2008, is Petrostate: Putin, Power and the New Russia.

This seminar is jointly sponsored by the Forum on Contemporary Europe and the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies.

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Marshall Goldman Professor Emeritus of Soviet Economics Speaker Wellesley College
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