Russian gas will continue to flow to Europe through Ukraine as long as the operators of Ukraine’s gas networks are able to function, the head of Ukraine's state energy firm Naftogaz told Reuters on Monday.
Russia is the European Union's top gas supplier and its invasion of Ukraine has led to concerns over possible disruptions, sending prices to record highs.
Some 41.6 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Russian gas was transported through Ukraine to Europe in 2021, making it a key supply route.
“Currently (Ukraine's) decision is that while it is still possible, we are providing transit,” Naftogaz head Yuriy Vitrenko said in an interview by video link.
The high-pressure transit pipelines have not been damaged during the conflict, he said. Still, any harm to the people operating the systems or damage to its IT networks could jeopardize flows.
Hundreds of thousands of people in some Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv and Mariupol are without gas supplies, heating and electricity, due to the destruction of local infrastructure, Vitrenko said.
“Every day, we send our employees under bullets to repair systems and then there is another bombing,” he said.
“They live in the cities, it's minus degrees, it's really cold at night. Their families live in the cities and they know that if there is no heating it’s a humanitarian catastrophe,” he said.
The United States last week announced a ban on Russian oil and gas imports but the European Union, has not set such sanctions.
Vitrenko said deliveries of Russian gas to Europe should continue but that payments for the fuel should be held in an escrow account until Russian President Vladimir Putin withdraws troops from Ukraine. Russia calls its action in Ukraine a "special operation".
Vitrenko said Russia would need to continue to pump gas, even if payment was withheld because stopping flows could damage the gas wells.
He also called for sanctions to be applied to Russia’s Nord Stream 1 pipeline which transports gas directly to Germany.
He said the EU could demand that those gas supplies be channeled through Ukraine instead, providing more incentive to halt the war and make sure the transit routes are secure.
Ukraine has spare transit capacity of around 90 billion cubic meters (bcm) a year, more than enough to offset the 55 bcm capacity of Nord Stream 1, Vitrenko said.
(Reuters - Reporting by Susanna Twidale; Editing by Susan Fenton)