Ukraine, Russia seek to strike new gas deal amid US sanctions threat

Geopolitical tensions between Russia and Ukraine, a U.S. challenge to Russia’s dominance in European energy markets and incomplete gas pipelines are just some of the issues complicating a gas transit deal between Kiev And Moscow’s energy giants that needs to be signed before the end of 2019.

Ukraine and Russia are involved in an unresolved territorial conflict that has run for over five years but on the energy front, in the meantime, Russian gas has still traveled through its main route of Ukraine to reach Europe. But maybe not for that much longer.

A 10-year gas transit deal that has kept Europe supplied with Russian gas is about to expire on December 31 and while talks are taking place to strike a new deal between Gazprom and Naftogaz, Russia and Ukraine’s respective state-owned oil and gas firms, an agreement has not yet been reached.

Having to strike a new deal is inconvenient for Gazprom, as it was hoping that its multi-billion dollar grand gas pipeline project to Germany, called Nord Stream 2 (NS2), would be completed by now, meaning that it could bypass its current pipeline route to Europe that goes through Ukraine..

Geopolitical tensions between Russia and Ukraine, a U.S. challenge to Russia’s dominance in European energy markets and incomplete gas pipelines are just some of the issues complicating a gas transit deal between Kiev And Moscow’s energy giants that needs to be signed before the end of 2019.

NS2 is estimated to cost around 9.5 billion euros ($10.59 billion) with several European companies, including Anglo-Dutch Shell and French firm Engie, co-financing the project.

However, Nord Stream 2 was expected to launch in mid-2020 but may be delayed now because of likely U.S. sanctions on companies involved in the project as part of its annual defense bill (the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which specifies U.S. defense policy and budget).

Essentially, Gazprom has been constrained to fall back on its Ukraine transit route, and to strike a new or extended deal with Naftogaz amid strained commercial and geopolitical relations.

Wary of being locked into a long deal, Gazprom has offered Ukraine’s Naftogaz a one-year gas transit deal to continue the transit of Russian gas. Ukraine wants a longer contract, however, in order to guarantee supply to its consumers.

The relationship between Gazprom and Naftogaz is strained with several high-profile legal disputes over the gas contract, debts and transit tariffs, taking place between the two entities. In fact, Gazprom had said earlier this year that it would not agree a new transit deal with Naftogaz unless legal cases between the parties were resolved.

Yet, they need each other.

Russia, meanwhile, needs to maintain its market position, and reliability, as a gas supplier to Europe, particularly in the face of competition from the U.S. for Europe’s gas market and a desire to keep Europe on side to some extent – particularly as it is still subject to sanctions.

Experts believe a deal will be reached, but not before some hard bargaining on both sides.

“The Naftogaz/Gazprom dispute is complicated by the fact that it involves corporate issues between both companies as well as the political conflict between Russia and Ukraine,” Daragh McDowell, head of Europe and Central Asia at Verisk Maplecroft, told CNBC Thursday.

“In addition to settling the corporate dispute, both state-owned corporations are wary of giving the other side a geopolitical ‘win.’ This incentivises both sides to adopt maximalist positions and hold out until the last minute to achieve a deal, both to get the best possible deal and to convince domestic constituencies that they drove as hard a bargain as possible,” McDowell added.

S&P Global Platts noted in its 2020 Energy Outlook, published last week, that a deal is looking more likely, given the recent peace talks between President Putin and President Zelensky. Furthermore, “Ukraine has agreed that Gazprom can repay its arbitration debt through the supply of gas, easing tensions around repayment,” it noted.

State-owned Naftogaz (and thus Ukraine) earns $3 billion a year from the transit fees of Russian gas through its country. Thus, once Nord Stream 2 comes online Ukraine will be bypassed and will lose that revenue, hence it has an interest in maintaining the current transit agreement as long as possible.

As such, any delay to NS2 would help strengthen Ukraine’s hand in ongoing talks with Gazprom for a new gas transit deal. Ukraine has said it would like another 10-year transit contract.