From falling profits to an EU anti-trust probe and a possibly misguided strategy based on pipelines -- storm clouds are finally gathering over Russia\'s previously invincible gas giant Gazprom. A January to March net profit slip of 23.5 percent marked the start of an ugly month in which Gazprom has waged diplomatic war with the EU Commission and then had President Vladimir Putin personally shield it from the probe. The world\'s largest producer also outraged local players by refusing to buy their gas -- a move whose contractual legitimacy is open to question -- and binned its biggest offshore project ever due to a client shortage. \"For the first time since 1998, Gazprom is facing serious financial troubles,\" VTB Capital wrote in reference to the year of post-Soviet Russia\'s worst economic crisis to date. \"Russia has overutilised Gazprom for a long time and this has been happening in many different ways, including to achieve some foreign policy goals..., fill the budget and employ state officials,\" it told clients in a special report. Gazprom was created in the late Soviet era from the USSR Ministry of Gas `Industry and took its current form in 1993 under the iron-fisted leadership of the late prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. The firm almost instantly became known as a \"state within a state\" -- a behemoth so large and powerful it formed its own foreign policies while running loose of taxpayer control. Gazprom today ships natural gas to one in four European households and employs 400,000 people in regions where it often replaces the government in duties such as providing health care and schools. It is this very scale and ungainliness that has made Federal Anti-Monopoly Service chief Igor Artemyev this week call Gazprom \"a highly-inefficient company that has enough money and must simply bring its house in order.\" The company\'s stock has rarely suffered too badly from it because investors often view Gazprom as a \"Russia\" play dissociated from the fundamentals. But its Achilles heel has been a failure to grasp the significance of shale and liquefied natural gas products that created instant supply gluts in North America and lay the foundation for a global market trade. Gazprom meanwhile is now working on two massive new pipelines to Europe at the staggering cost of around $30 billion. Analysts question if EU clients -- with supply diversification top of their agenda -- will need either in the years to come. \"While other producers are building LNG plants, grabbing a share of Gazprom\'s market against the backdrop of falling European demand... Gazprom is insistently building new pipelines. To Europe,\" the Kommersant Vlast business weekly wrote. \"It just looks like a joke.\" Data show Gazprom also losing nearly 10 percent of the domestic market in the past five years to private rivals such as Novatek -- a firm co-owned by an old-time colleague of Putin which is quickly expanding abroad. Things will grow only worse should the government strip the group of its exclusive right to international pipelines and allow ambitious competitors such as Rosneft to deliver their growing gas volumes to EU states. And some even fail to see the silver lining in deciding to mothball the $40 billion Stockman project in the Arctic -- a priority in the past decade made redundant by US liquefied natural gas. \"We can only expect a positive impact if Gazprom reviews all its long-term expenditures and makes them correspond to global gas demand,\" the Otkritie Financial Corporation observed. Yet the biggest concern for the group is being branded by the EU a monopoly that must eliminate some of its European pipeline and refining capacities while promoting regional trade.