By Susanna Twidale
LONDON, March 14 (Reuters) – Russian gas will continue to flow to Europe through Ukraine as long as Ukrainian network operators are allowed to function, the head of state-owned energy company Naftogaz told Reuters on Monday.
Russia is the main supplier of gas to the European Union and its invasion of Ukraine has raised concerns about possible disruptions, sending prices to record highs.
Some 41.6 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Russian gas were transported through Ukraine to Europe in 2021, making it a key supply route.
“Currently, (Ukraine’s) decision is that as long as possible, we will be delayed in transit,” Naftogaz chief Yuriy Vitrenko said in a virtual interview.
High-pressure transit pipelines have not suffered any mishaps during the conflict, he said. However, any damage to the people who operate them or to their computer networks could jeopardize the flows.
Hundreds of thousands of people in some Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv and Mariupol are without gas, heat and electricity due to the destruction of local infrastructure, Vitrenko said.
“Every day we send our employees under the bullets to fix the systems and then there’s another bombardment,” he said. “They live in the cities, there are temperatures below zero. They know that if there is no heating it is a humanitarian catastrophe.”
The United States last week announced a ban on imports of Russian oil and gas. However, the European Union has not established sanctions of this nature.
Vitrenko said Russian gas deliveries to Europe should continue, but payments for the fuel should be held in escrow until Russian President Vladimir Putin withdraws troops from Ukraine. Russia calls the invasion a “special operation.”
Vitrenko said Russia has to keep pumping gas, even if payment is withheld, because disrupting flows could damage gas wells. He also called for sanctions on the Russian Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which transports gas directly to Germany.
He said the EU could require those gas supplies to be channeled through Ukraine, which would provide a greater incentive to stop the war and ensure the safety of transit routes.
(Reporting by Susanna Twidale; Editing in Spanish by Javier Leira)