SUDZHA, January 12 – The first EU observers arrived at a remote Russian pipeline plant near the border with Ukraine only to find that President Dmitry Medvedev declared a deal to resume gas supplies to Europe "null and void."
After bureaucratic hold-ups at the Russian border crossing from Ukraine, the two representatives of Germany\’s E.ON Ruhrgas and France\’s GDF Suez — Michael Huesken and Francis Guyon respectively — reached the small brick building in the middle of snowy fields at dusk.
"The time when the gas will resume is unknown," says Valentyn Zemlyansky, a spokesman for Ukraine\’s state gas company Naftogaz who was accompanying the delegation to Russian energy giant Gazprom\’s Sudzha gas measuring station — the place Zemlyansky called the "valve" that switches on or off the gas entry to Ukrainian pipelines.
Mikhail Bashlakov, an engineer wearing blue Gazprom overalls who works at the station monitoring Russian gas supplies from Siberia through four pipelines running to Ukraine and Europe, said: "Everything has been shut down."
Russia cut off supplies to Europe this week equivalent to about a fifth of the EU\’s total consumption, saying it had been forced to do so because Ukraine was blocking transit of the gas in pipelines running through its territory.
Ukraine has denied this and accuses Russia of being behind the crisis.
International observers were deployed to gas pipeline plants in both Russia and Ukraine as part of an EU-brokered agreement to resume Russian supplies to gas-starved countries across central Europe and the Balkans.
Ukraine signed the deal on Sunday following overnight talks with Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, representing the EU presidency. Russia signed the accord on Saturday at Prime Minister Vladimir Putin\’s residence near Moscow.
But in a discussion with Moscow\’s foreign minister shown on television late Sunday, Medvedev said the deal was off, revealing that Russia objected to a handwritten addition to the formal agreement made by the Ukrainian side.
"We are obliged to consider the document signed as null and void for us," Medvedev told Sergei Lavrov. "We will not apply it as long as this reserve is not overturned," he added.
At Sudzha before Medvedev\’s broadcast, Huesken told reporters that "we are proceeding from the fact that our work will help quickly resume gas supplies from Russia. We intend to remain here on the spot to establish monitoring of gas supplies.
"In the past two or three days, about 22 technical experts have arrived in Moscow and Kiev. This group has been divided in several groups to go to Ukraine and Russia. The task of the group of technical experts is to provide a neutral picture of gas supplies.
"To solve this task we will be collecting information at gas measuring stations".
Asked how long he thought he would be there, Huesken replied: "So far there is no clarity on this issue."
Guyon said the monitors were "ready" to start, but told AFP after a briefing that "we do not have enough information."
When the delegation was delayed for more than an hour by Russian border guards, the GDF Suez official joked: "If I have problems, do I have to call (French President Nicolas) Sarkozy?"
The two observers later met with Alexander Glaskritsky, a local representative of Gazprom responsible for the pipelines.
Reporters were shown around two rooms on the first floor of the plant marked "Representative Office of Ukraine" and "Representative Office of Russia."