Kiev - Ukraine on Sunday accepted a deal on the EU-led monitoring of Russian gas transiting its territory, opening the way for restarting Russian natural gas supplies to a freezing Europe.
Russia, which halted shipments four days earlier, wanted the written deal to renew gas shipments that it suspended amid a bitter contract dispute with Ukraine. The suspension was seen by many as yet another attempt by Moscow to reassert its clout over Western-leaning former Soviet republics.
Russia said it needed European Union monitors deployed to Ukraine to prevent it from stealing Russian gas intended for Europe. Ukraine hotly denied the claims.
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, shuttled between Moscow and Kiev on Saturday to mediate the deal. He finally persuaded Ukraine to accept the monitoring pact during marathon talks which dragged past midnight.
"Nothing prevents Russia now from resuming gas supplies," Topolanek said after Ukrainian officials endorsed the deal.
"We once again have shown our goodwill," Ukraine's prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, said, adding that the monitoring mission would uphold her nation's image as an "honest transit country."
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised that Moscow will resume gas shipments once the deal is signed and monitors are in place.
Frozen to death
Putin didn't say how quickly Russia may restart supplies, but Bohdan Sokolovsky, an energy adviser to the Ukrainian president, said it would take Russia some 30 hours to begin gas deliveries and it would then take an additional 36 hours for Ukraine to move gas to its western border.
Russia supplies about one-quarter of the EU's natural gas, most of it shipped through Ukraine, and the disruption has come during a harsh winter. At least 11 people have frozen to death this week in Europe, including 10 in Poland, where temperatures have sunk to minus 13 F (minus 25 C).
Topolanek talked with Putin for more than five hours at his suburban residence outside Moscow after visiting Ukraine the previous night. He then rushed back into the Ukrainian capital late on Saturday to get Ukraine's approval.
"This agreement is very important for us," Topolanek said during the talks with Ukrainian officials. "We can't allow the entire energy system of Europe to collapse."
Ukraine initially objected to the monitoring pact, voicing concern that it could give Russian officials too much access to the Ukrainian gas transit system. Putin insisted the deal is needed to make transit fully transparent, and warned that Russia could again reduce shipments if Ukraine siphons gas.
"Once the monitoring mechanism starts working, we will start gas supplies," Putin said after the talks with Topolanek. "But if we see them stealing it again and part of the gas is missing, we will again reduce supplies by that amount."
'The longer they stay the better'
Monitors, including representatives of the European Commission, European energy companies and Russian and Ukrainian gas officials, will travel to gas pumping stations on Ukraine's eastern and western borders to track the gas flow.
Topolanek said there is no time limit for the observers' mission, and Putin said "the longer they stay, the better it is for us, Ukraine and European consumers."
Topolanek briefly interrupted his talks with Putin to speak on the phone with US President George Bush. Bush "welcomed the Czech-led EU efforts to help resolve the energy crisis by ensuring natural gas begins flowing again from Russia to Ukraine and Europe," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesperson for the US National Security Council.
Earlier this week, US National Security adviser Stephen Hadley warned Russia that using its energy exports to threaten its neighbours will undermine its international standing. The Bush administration has long accused Russia of using energy as a weapon to strong-arm its ex-Soviet neighbours.
The Russian state natural gas giant Gazprom halted the shipment of gas intended for Ukraine January 1 after negotiations over a new gas contract broke down.
Russia then accused Ukraine of siphoning its gas intended for Europe, and finally turned off the taps on all gas shipped through Ukraine on Wednesday, ending or reducing gas supplies to more than a dozen European nations as winter turned bitterly cold across the region.
No political goals
A commercial dispute over gas transit and prices triggered the current crisis, but relations between the two ex-Soviet neighbours have been strained since the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine led to the election of a pro-Western government in Kiev.
Putin denied allegations that Moscow was pursuing political goals in the gas dispute, saying it wants market-based economic relations with its neighbor.
EU governments have criticised both Russia and Ukraine for the crisis.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Friday that Ukraine should pay a European price for the Russian gas. Last year, Russia charged Ukraine $179.50 per 1 000 cubic meters, about half what it charged its European customers.
Ukraine's Naftogaz company chief Oleh Dubyna said the latest round of talks on the gas contract for this year ended on Saturday without result. He said Gazprom offered to supply gas at a price of $450 per 1 000 cubic meters.
Fifteen countries - Austria, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Turkey - said their Russian supplies ceased on Wednesday. Germany and Poland also reported substantial drops in supplies.