EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Russia's letter forewarning the EU that it will reduce gas supplies to Belarus arrived at the European Commission on Monday morning (21 June) shortly after Gazprom had already begun to turn off the taps.
"There is a systematic underpayment by the Belarusian company Beltransgaz for the gas supplied by Gazprom during the four months of 2010 that has resulted in a debt which exceeds $190 million, without penalty payments," the letter from Igor Sechin, one of the Kremlin's most powerful insiders, to EU energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger, said. "The Russian side continues to do its utmost to avoid a crisis."
'It's when the consultations start, that's when it gets interesting,' an EU official said (Photo: eastpole)
The note constitutes the EU and Russia's Early Warning Mechanism (EWM) on energy cut-offs set up in 2009 in the wake of a massive Ukraine gas crunch which left both Russia and Ukraine's reputation as reliable suppliers in tatters. Belarus transits about 20 percent of Russia's gas exports to the EU, feeding energy to Germany, Lithuania and Poland.
An EU official said the Sechin letter originally arrived at the Russian mission in Brussels before the Belarus cut-offs began, but was late in landing on Mr Oettinger's desk because Russian diplomats had to translate the text.
The Russian EU mission followed-up by sending a panel of energy experts to meet with EU officials some three hours after the diplomatic note.
"It shows this Early Warning Mechanism works well. It's not just the notification part, it's when the consultations start, that's when it gets interesting, because we talk about what could happen and what would be the solution for us in an ongoing process," the EU official added.
The EWM was just one of several communications efforts deployed by Moscow to limit the potential PR damage of the latest post-Soviet gas battle in what has become a never-ending story in the EU energy security field.
Russian diplomats have in recent days kept in touch through back-channels with officials close to European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso. "This was not a surprise," another contact in the EU institutions said.
Russia's ?2 million-a-year-or-so PR machine in Brussels, handled by the British consultancy GPlus, also got to work telling staff in EU institutions and Brussels-based press that the Belarus dispute is purely commercial and that Gazprom is behaving like "any company in the world" which is owed money by an unruly client.
Seasoned diplomats in former Communist and former Soviet countries tend to see Gazprom as an arm of Russia's foreign ministry, or even its FSB secret service, wielded to extend the Kremlin's power in the old Soviet "sphere of influence."
The theory goes that financial pressure on impoverished Belarus could help Moscow gain control of strategic assets in the energy transit or petrol refinery sectors as well as showing voters who is boss in the region ahead of Belarus presidential elections, due by March next year.
Gazprom staff directly contacted the Lithuanian foreign ministry in the past days to make sure its message gets through even to the most Kremlin-wary elements in the EU community.
"We got assurances well in advance," Lithuanian deputy foreign minister Evaldas Ignatavicius told this website, saying that Gazprom has promised to send supplies via Latvia if the dispute with Belarus escalates. Lithuania, which shut down a nuclear reactor earlier this year, now depends almost entirely on Russian gas to keep the country going.
"I don't think Russia wants to send any more negative signals to the EU," Mr Ignatavicius said. "[Despite the Belarus dispute] Russia wants to show that it is simply interested in selling gas to the West."