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Czechs See Oil Flow Fall and Suspect Russian Ire on Missile System

Czechs See Oil Flow Fall and Suspect Russian Ire on Missile System

Published: July 12, 2008

MOSCOW — Three days after the Czech Republic signed an agreement with the United States to host a tracking radar for an antiballistic missile system that Russia vehemently opposes, the authorities in Prague said the flow of Russian oil to their country was beginning to dwindle.

In a statement on Friday, Czech officials declined to link the reduced supply to the deal signed Tuesday in Prague. Still, though the flow of oil can vary for technical reasons, it was clear that the Czechs suspected a connection and intended to ask the Russians to explain the decline.

Russia maintains that the missiles meant to shoot down other missiles pose a threat to its own nuclear deterrence. The Bush administration says they are intended instead to counter a threat from Iran, which launched nine missiles on Wednesday.

In the deal, the Czech Republic agreed to have the United States place a tracking radar on Czech territory. That radar would be linked to interceptor missiles elsewhere; the United States is in talks with Poland and Lithuania to host those.

In one of his first foreign policy tests since becoming Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev said this week that Russia intended to retaliate. “We are extremely upset by this situation,” Mr. Medvedev said at a news conference in Japan, where he was attending aGroup of 8 summit meeting.

“We will not be hysterical about this, but we will think of retaliatory steps,” he said.

Shipments to Czech oil refineries through the Druzhba pipeline, which ties Siberian fields to the Czech Republic, are declining, the Czech Ministry of Industry and Trade said. It did not say by how much.

It said in a statement that it was “trying to find out what is the cause via the Czech Embassy in Moscow.” The Czech Republic has oil reserves to cover 95 days of demand, it said.

A Czech Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Zuzana Opletalova, declined in a telephone interview to link the reduced oil supply to accepting the antimissile radar. “We don’t want to say if this is related,” Ms. Opletalova said, adding that the ministry hoped for clarification on Monday.

Written questions sent to Russia’s pipeline operator, Transneft, were not answered after working hours on Friday.

In any case, the Czech Republic is far less vulnerable than Ukraine, which was severely hurt two years ago by a cut in Russian natural gas. In the 1990s the Czechs built, at great expense, a transnational oil pipeline from the West to open an alternative to Russian oil and reduce their vulnerability. This pipeline from Germany taps Western European networks supplied from the Middle East and the North Sea.

The Ministry of Industry and Trade said this supply route could fully compensate for even a total Russian shutoff.

The Russian leadership, emboldened by new wealth, is seen by critics as intent on restoring lost spheres of influence in Eastern Europe. Russia is the world’s largest energy exporting nation, if oil and natural gas are counted together. Many Eastern European nations are wholly dependent on Russia for fuel.

This dependence has stirred some fears of a spreading politicization of energy, at a time of soaring prices, akin to the 1973 Arab oil embargo of the United States.

Russian officials have consistently denied exploiting energy as an instrument of foreign policy. The Russian prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, said Friday that Russia would “comply with all our commitments to our foreign partners now, in the midterm and in the long term,” the Interfax news agency reported.

“We will behave responsibly, as usual,” he said.

In January 2006, Gazprom, Russia’s gas company, cut gas supplies to Ukraine for three days, about a year after the protests known as the Orange Revolution ushered in a pro-Western government. The cutoff was ostensibly over a pricing dispute.

Later in 2006, after Lithuanian authorities sold an important oil refinery to a non-Russian company, the Russian pipeline operator closed the pipe to that refinery, blaming technical problems.

Judy Dempsey contributed reporting from Berlin.

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