WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A spat has broken out between Poland and Russia over what Warsaw claims is a sharp drop in natural gas supplies. The move comes amid concerns Moscow is ready to use its energy exports as a political weapon over the crisis in Ukraine.
Russian gas supplier Gazprom was elusive in its position: while it claimed its deliveries didn't drop, it warned that they depend on volumes available for export. It also argued that the problem is due to Poland ramping up its demand, something the Polish state gas company didn't want to confirm.
Polish Economy Minister Janusz Piechocinski said he had Gazprom's assurances that deliveries will be fully meet the demand starting Friday.
Amid the counterclaims, Poland said it was obliged to stop sending gas on to Ukraine, which has been relying on imports from European countries since it was cut off by Russia in June.
Austrian officials, meanwhile, said the latest delivery of Russian natural gas is 15 percent below the agreed-on amount. Bernhard Painz of Austria's energy regulatory authority said that Russia delivered only 85 percent of the natural gas it was supposed to on Thursday. He speculates that could be because Moscow is in the process of filling its storage tanks.
The dispute between Poland and Russia has been growing since Monday, when the Polish state gas company, PGNiG, registered that Russian supplies were down 20 percent from the requested daily levels. It recorded a 24 percent shortfall on Tuesday and a 45 percent drop on Wednesday. It said Thursday it had received no notification or explanation from Gazprom.
In Moscow, Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov insisted that Russia is sending as much gas to Poland as agreed and that Poland was requesting more than the contract provides.
In a contract with Gazprom, a country can demand gas within a range volume, but the terms are not disclosed publicly.
Kupriyanov said Poland and other customers were receiving as much gas as they had been in early September, but also that Russia was filling its gas storage tanks.
Besides Poland and Austria, no other European countries appeared to experience the same large drop in gas supplies.
Kupriyanov explained that Gazprom was not meeting any increased demands because of its own domestic needs. Supplies depend on the "export resources we have, while we are continuing to pump gas into the Russian underground storages," Kupriyanov told the Ekho Moskvy radio, without specifying the amounts.
PGNiG indicated this was in breach of contract, however. PGNiG spokeswoman Dorota Gajewska said lawyers were analyzing whether Poland should seek damages from Gazprom.
The gas in question arrives to European countries through pipelines that cross Ukraine and Belarus. In a price dispute, Russia has cut off gas to Ukraine, but it still allows the fuel to transit through its pipelines to customers in the rest of Europe.
To Moscow's dislike, Poland and some other European countries have this year started sending some of the Russian gas on to Ukraine, to help it through its standoff with Russia. Moscow is angry with the Ukrainian government for trying to quash a rebellion of pro-Russian separatists in the east, and with Poland and the EU for supporting Ukraine.
Some commentators say Russia is trying to punish Poland, one of the bigger advocates for taking a hard line against Russia, for supplying Ukraine with Gazprom's gas.
Gazprom's CEO, Alexei Miller, warned in June that the company would cut supplies to those countries which it found to be sending Russian gas onto Ukraine.
Zuzanna Nowak, an analyst with Poland's PISM think tank, said it was possible that Gazprom was acting on that warning now. Another possibility she saw was that PGNiG might have recently raised its demand for some reason, and that Russia was not immediately meeting it.
Poland is making up for the shortfall by buying more gas from Germany and the Czech Republic, Gajewska said. She added that there is no need for immediate concern in Poland because the weather is warm and storage tanks are full.
Last year, Poland bought some 8.9 billion cubic meters of Russian gas, covering about 60 percent of its needs. It has some 2.6 billion cubic meters of natural gas stored in gas tanks.
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to the report.