May 7 (UPI) -- Two Ukrainian gas officials say Russia is trying to start a "gas war" and isolate Ukraine by pushing for a controversial pipeline that would effectively bypass the country to deliver natural gas to Europe.
The Nord Stream 2 pipeline would travel under the Baltic Sea and allow Russia to bypass Ukraine to deliver cheaper gas directly to Europe. For years, Ukraine has been a significant customer for Russian gas and has provided a critical route to Europe. Formerly part of the old Soviet Union, Ukraine has been at odds with Russia over numerous issues since Moscow forcibly annexed Crimea in 2014 -- a move many nations view as illegitimate.
Some in the European Union are worried a potential gas war could increase dependence on Russia for energy.
Andriy Kobolyev, chief executive of Ukrainian gas company Naftogaz, said Russia state gas company Gazprom has deliberately stalled talks between the two, as a contract between them expires Jan. 1.
"Their goal is to create an artificial crisis, as was the case in 2009," Kobolyev said. "A crisis that would allow them to promote their own interests. The crisis I'm talking about, which may happen in January 2020, can be called a gas war, and I believe the probability of itis very high."
Naftogaz Executive Director Yuriy Vitrenko told bne IntelliNews Russia plans to cut Ukraine off the pipeline if it's delayed or blocked. While the move could cause a shortage of gas in Europe, experts say Ukraine could be faced with no gas imports from the east or west. He said Russia refuses to pay the $2.6 billion it owes Naftogaz from a Stockholm court decision last year. The Ukrainian company has unsuccessfully tried to seize Russian gas assets in European over the delay.
"They are not paying," Vitrenko said. "That is why we are enforcing the tribunal's award all over the world, including in some jurisdictions like Luxembourg. Gazprom's legal right to refuse payment is thin."
Moscow did not immediately respond to the accusations.