MOSCOW (AP) — Vladimir Putin warned Europe yesterday that it may face a shutdown of Russian natural gas supplies if it fails to help Ukraine settle its enormous Russian gas bill — a debt that far exceeds a bailout package offered by the International Monetary Fund.
The Russian president’s letter to 18 mostly Eastern European leaders, released yesterday by the Kremlin, aimed to divide the 28-nation European Union and siphon off to Russia the billions that the international community plans to lend to Ukraine. It was all part of Russia’s efforts to retain control over its struggling neighbor, which is teetering on the verge of financial ruin and facing a pro-Russian separatist mutiny in the east.
Putin’s message is clear: The EU has tried to lure Ukraine from Russia’s orbit and into its fold, so it should now foot Ukraine’s gas bill — or face the country’s economic collapse and a disruption of its own gas supplies.
The tough warning raises the ante ahead of international talks on settling the Ukrainian crisis that for the first time will bring together the United States, the European Union, Russia and Ukraine.
The U.S. State Department yesterday condemned what it called “Russia’s efforts to use energy as a tool of coercion against Ukraine.”
Hundreds of pro-Russian protesters — some armed — were still occupying Ukrainian government buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk while authorities sought a peaceful solution yesterday to the five-day standoff. And in northwest Romania, U.S. and Romanian forces kicked off a week of joint military exercises.
The amount that Putin claims Ukraine owes is growing by billions every week — and his letter raises the specter of a new gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine that could affect much of Europe. In 2009, Moscow turned off gas supplies to Kiev in the dead of winter, leading to freezing cities across Eastern Europe as Russian gas stopped moving through Ukrainian pipelines to other nations.