KIEV/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to ease European fears of gas supply cuts yesterday after Brussels said it would stand with the new authorities in Kiev if the Kremlin carries out a threat to turn off the tap to Ukraine.
Russia, which last month angered Western powers by annexing Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, has raised the price it charges Kiev for gas and said it owes Moscow $2.2 billion in unpaid bills.
That has raised the specter of previous “gas wars”, when rows between the two former Soviet states led to problems with onward supplies to western Europe. A repeat of that scenario could hurt Russia as well as EU customers for its gas because Moscow depends for its public revenues on selling gas in Europe.
“I want to say again: We do not intend and do not plan to shut off the gas for Ukraine,” Putin said in televised comments at a meeting of his advisory Security Council. “We guarantee fulfillment of all our obligations to our European consumers.”
The stand-off, precipitated by the overthrow of the Moscow-backed Ukrainian president after he rejected closer ties to the European Union, has brought Russia’s relations with the West to their most fraught since the end of the Cold War in 1991.
In a sign of efforts to calm tempers, aides to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton confirmed a meeting next Thursday involving Russia and Ukraine with Ashton and US officials.
After Russian troops took over Crimea last month, officials with the NATO military alliance said Moscow was massing forces on the border with mainly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, possibly as a prelude to seizing more parts of the country.