Autumn has arrived and the Russian media has started recycling a favorite false narrative about Ukraine -- that its heating system is in a state of collapse, meaning that major cities will be left without natural gas supplies this winter.
Ukrainian fact checkers have regularly debunked such claims, which started appearing after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. But they are even easier to disprove this year, because Russian media are reusing reports and video footage already broadcast last year.
On September 28, Gazeta.ru, owned by the Russian government energy giant Gazprom, ran an item headlined: “Disruption of the heating season: Will Kyiv be left without gas in the winter?” The article claimed Naftogaz of Ukraine, Ukraine’s national oil and gas company, is worried that “the heating season in Ukraine is on the verge of collapse.”
“And this will not be the fault of Russian Gazprom,” Gazeta.ru added, stating that the companies providing heating have accumulated debts to Naftogaz of Ukraine that they are not able to pay off.
"Ukrainian cities may be left without centralized heating this winter. Urban dwellers, including in Kyiv, are thinking about stockpiling firewood,” Gazeta.ru wrote.
That claim is false. The Gazeta.ru story was based on and attached to a video report by Rossiya 24 state television from the same day (September 28), which recycled an almost identical report that Rossiya 24 aired on November 14, 2018.
Rossiya 24’s report this year started with the host announcing that the residents of Kyiv, worried that their heating will be turned off, had come out to protest, carrying signs and blocking Lesya Ukrainka Boulevard in the center of the city.
As the host announced that the first snow had just fallen in Kyiv, a journalist from Vesti FM, Vladimir Sinelnikov, joined by phone, allegedly live from Kyiv, and described how the heating situation in Ukraine had become dire as winter approaches. According to the report, the areas most affected are the cities of Kyiv, Kryvyi Rih, Vinnytsia, Odessa, and Kharkiv. The reporter said that the risk of the heating system collapsing was particularly high in Smila, Cherkasy oblast and Chervonohrad in Lviv oblast.
The report included footage of elderly people, dressed in winter coats and parkas with hats and hoods, protesting and carrying signs. Yet the temperature in Kyiv on September 28, 2019, was rather balmy, hitting above 60 degrees Fahrenheit around noon. The weather was cloudy and a bit foggy, but, contrary to what the TV presenter said, there was no snow.
The “live” footage from Kyiv appeared to be outdated. A quick search of YouTube’s video archives found identical footage in another TV program by Rossiya 24 TV, which aired on November 14, 2018. Both reports claimed that the Ukrainian heating system was about to collapse and that Ukrainian citizens are protesting and stocking up on firewood. The two reports were remarkably similar, although the reporter in the earlier one was different -- Rossiya 24’s own Georgiy Podgorniy. He named the same cities and regions as being affected by the impending heating crisis: Kyiv, Kryvyi Rih, Vinnytsia, Odessa, and Kharkiv along with Smila, Cherkasy oblast and Chervonohrad in Lviv oblast.
A closer look at the Rossiya 24 TV programs aimed at discrediting Ukraine’s ability to provide for its people exposes an entire campaign focused on the country’s alleged “collapsing heating system.”
On September 27, Dmitriy Kulikov’s talk show on Rossiya 24, “Who is Against,” was devoted entirely to the topic and titled: “Ukraine is ready to freeze to spite Gazprom.”
Interestingly, one of the talk show participants remarked that the imminent collapse of the Ukrainian heating system has been discussed on the show every fall for the last five years, but nothing happens, “Ukraine continues to live.”
Kulikov showed a screenshot of the original source of his information – a September 27 report by the Russian language news portal in Ukraine, Strana.ua.
Strana.ua is a Russian-language online publication based in Kyiv that was launched on February 16, 2016 by the controversial editor Igor Guzhva, who subsequently fled to Austria after allegedly receiving death threats for his publication’s pro-Russia positions.
According to Inosmi.ru, the editorial policy of Strana.ua is characterized by constant criticism of the Ukrainian government, blaming it for the deterioration of relations with Russia and the destruction of the Ukraine’s economy, accusing it of supporting nationalism and being completely dependent on the West. Strana.ua actively collaborates with the Russian media, disseminating their opinions and often serving as the only source for their publications about Ukraine, according to independent media experts quoted by Inosmi.ru.
Interestingly, Strana.ua listed the same cities and regions threatened by gas supply cut off as mentioned in Rossiya 24’s TV segment from last year: Kyiv, Kryvyi Rih, Vinnytsia, Odessa, and Kharkiv, Smila in the Cherkasy oblast and Chervonohrad in Lviv oblast.
The Strana.ru report is based on Naftogaz’s weekly publication of the names of debtors to remind them to make the minimum payments required by law to secure the continuation of gas supplies. But the biggest debtors that Strana.ru lists are not the right ones. While it is true that Kryvyi Rih appears to owe a large amount, Kyiv owes quite significantly smaller sums to Naftogaz, compared to thermo-power plants in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the two Ukrainian districts subjected to Russian military aggression. Naftogaz of Ukraine continues to supply natural gas to territories in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that are not currently controlled by Russian-led forces.
“Currently, over 90 percent of the heat suppliers do not have issues with payment schedules,” Naftogaz’s corporate communications director, Aliona Osmolovska, told Polygraph.info. “We publish the list of heat producers that have debt in arrears with us. We do this on a weekly basis for years to stimulate such companies to pay. If they fall below a certain level of payments we are not allowed to sell gas to them, according to the law. They still have time to correct the situation: get the money from their owners (mostly municipalities or the government), restructure or have a local campaign to urge their own debtors to pay.”
This is not a new practice for major gas suppliers; in fact, Gazprom also regularly publishes such statistics on their clients in Russia.
According to Naftogaz’s annual financial reports, the company has earned record revenues in the last few years. The reasons are the reform of the natural gas sector, liberalization of gas prices and infrastructure upgrades. Russian media have harshly criticized the liberalization of the previously heavily subsidized gas prices in Ukraine, claiming that Ukrainian customers cannot afford the new prices. The report of Gazeta.ru on September 28 did not make an exception. The reforms were implemented according to the European Union’s energy market rules.
Gas prices dropped by 28 percent in March due to the influx of cheap liquefied natural gas from the United States to Europe.
Naftogaz offered retail consumers the chance to prepay for gas they will need in the winter at a fixed low summer price. Over 55,000 families used the opportunity, said Osmolovska.
In a recent presentation, the Ukrainian government said that the average share of heating costs in household spending is seven percent. Generally, the subsidy system in Ukraine covers all utility bills above 15 percent of household income for eligible families. Approximately 30 percent of consumers receive subsidies from the state.
Thus, although gas prices have increased significantly since 2013, the government’s support program for vulnerable customers has also been boosted, Osmolovska said. Wealthier consumers pay market prices for the gas they consume while low-income families are subsidized.
Winter Heating On
In the meantime, the Ukrainian government announced that the heating season in the capital Kyiv started on September 30 and would begin on October 10 for the industrial sector and on October 15 for the residential buildings throughout the country.
"Readiness of the residential and commercial buildings is almost 100%,” said Alena Babak from the press service of the Ukrainian ministry for regional development. She added that the only remaining problems are with connecting some private enterprises and thermo power plants in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that the government is trying to resolve in conjunction with the local authorities.” These are enterprises on territories in Donetsk and Luhansk regions that are controlled by Kyiv.
Furthermore, Ukraine’s Minister of Energy and the Environment, Oleksiy Orzhel, has announced that 21 billion cubic meters of gas have been pumped into Ukraine's underground gas storage facilities before the start of the heating season.
These volumes will not only provide sufficient natural gas supplies for Ukraine’s domestic consumption, but will also allow Naftogaz of Ukraine to continue sending Russian gas to European customers for the first quarter of 2020. The European Commission is currently hosting talks between Russia and Ukraine on continuing Russian gas exports through Ukraine after the current agreement expires on December 31.