About an hour ago, the head of Russia’s top natural gas producer Gazprom said on Wednesday that Ukraine had informed the company it could not pay for February gas deliveries in full, further adding to tensions between Moscow and Kiev. Alexei Miller said Ukraine’s total debt to Gazprom for gas deliveries was nearing $2 billion. “Our Ukrainian colleagues informed us that they would not be able to pay in full for February gas deliveries,” he told Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As reported by Reuters, Miller added that Ukraine managed to redeem only $10 million on Wednesday from a total debt of $1.529 billion. He said that Ukraine’s debt would rise by $440 million on March 7, a deadline for payments. In other words, as of this moment the Ukraine already owes Russia $2 billion, or about double what John Kerry announced to much fanfare, the US would provide the country with in terms of aid. And considering that yesterday Gazprom announed that beginning in April it would end the gas pricing discount to the Ukraine, which lowered the price of gas to $268.5 per 1,000 cubic metres from around $400, this accrual is only set to get bigger with every passing day, and very soon Ukraine may get no Russian gas at all which was and continues to be the biggest leverage Russia has over the country which nuclear power plants provide less than half of its electricity needs.
As a reminder, and as we have pointed out since the start of the Ukraine conflict, Gazprom, which meets 30 percent of Europe’s gas demand, shipped 86 billion cubic meters, or over half of its total exports, to the European Union through Ukraine last year. Gazprom already warned Europe may see “fluctuations” in its gas delivieries from Russia.
A Gazprom spokesman said Russian gas transit to Europe via Ukraine was flowing normally. For now.
But gas is only the beginning of Ukraine’s problems. As also announced about an hour ago, Ukraine’s acting finance minister Oleksander Shlapak reported that the country needs to repay $10 billion by year end and that the country may ask for a debt restructuring. Naturally, absent outside help, no repayment is possible and the country will certainly default, which means someone has to step up and bail out the Ukraine. The only question is where this aid comes from: EU/IMF or Russia.
And that is the €/$64K question. Which is why also earlier today, the European Commission announced that it will provide Ukraine with 11 billion euros ($15 billion) in financial assistance to Ukraine. As reported by RIA, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the aid package was designed to enable “a committed, inclusive and reforms-oriented government in rebuilding a stable and prosperous future for Ukraine.” The European Commission said in a statement that financial support would be provided over a two-year period from the EU budget and EU-based international financial institutions.
There is only one problem with Europe’s aid: the money is not only not “there,” it is also conditional on individual countries getting approval from their populations, and most of it would come from the IMF, i.e. funded primarily by US taxpayers. As the WSJ summarized, “The EU said it would make at least $15 billion in grants and loans available for Ukraine in the next couple of years, although much of the money has strings attached and would need approval from member states and other institutions.”
So basically, it comes down to a matter of timing and payment acceleration: if Russia really wants Ukraine to fold, it will make sure the bill is high enough and the gas shut off looming enough that the only source of funds would be Russia itself, not insolvent Europe. The last thing Putin will want is to give Europe the years it needs to figure out how to honor its bailout commitment (ask Greece). Which is why Medvedev has also announced Russia would be able to provide $2-3 billion immediately to Ukraine… to pay for the gas bill. Naturally, with a few strings attached.