Russian leader Vladimir Putin has threatened to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine unless it starts repaying a huge debt and unless the EU agrees to joint talks on its economic future.
He said in a letter sent to 18 European leaders on Thursday (10 April) that “in the event of further violation of the conditions of payment, [Russian firm Gazprom] will completely or partially cease gas deliveries.”
He noted: “Undoubtedly, this is an extreme measure. We fully realize that this increases the risk of siphoning off natural gas passing through Ukraine’s territory and heading to European consumers.”
He added that “in order to guarantee uninterrupted transit, it will be necessary, in the nearest future” for Ukraine to buy $5 billion worth of gas to be pumped into its storage vats.
The letter’s recipients are all heads of countries which depend on Russian gas transit via Ukraine.
They include EU countries Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
They also include Bosnia, Macedonia, Moldova, Serbia and Turkey.
The letter went on to blame the EU for causing Ukraine’s economic crisis by sucking up its raw materials on the cheap while selling back expensive manufactured goods.
“To a large extent, the crisis in Ukraine’s economy has been precipitated by the unbalanced trade with the EU member states,” Putin said.
He added that the EU has given Ukraine nothing but “promises [of financial aid] that are not backed up by any real actions.”
He also claimed the EU has refused to hold joint talks with Russia on the crisis.
“All attempts on Russia’s part to begin real consultations failed to produce any results … European partners have unilaterally withdrawn from the concerted efforts to resolve the Ukrainian crisis, and even from holding consultations with the Russian side,” he noted.
The US’ new ambassador to the EU, Anthony Luzzatto Gardner, was as blunt as Barroso in recent comments to press.
“Let’s be clear: Gazprom has been using energy as a weapon,” he said on 4 April, referring to Putin’s track record of using gas prices to gain political influence in former Soviet and former Communist states.
USS Donald Cook, a destroyer equipped with the powerful Aegis missile defense system, has crossed through the Bosphorus and entered the Black Sea, with Russia claiming that NATO is assembling a battle fleet in the region.
Earlier, the US Defense Department said the ship’s mission was“to reassure NATO allies and Black Sea partners” following the events in Ukraine.
“It demonstrates our commitment to our … allies to enhance security, readiness and capabilities,”spokesman Colonel Steven Warren said in a statement.
But sources in the Russian military believe the move is part of a systematic build-up of naval forces.
“What we are seeing is that for the first time since 2008, NATO is creating a naval battle group outside the Russian borders,” a source told Interfax news agency, citing the entry of French reconnaissance ship Dupuy de Lome and destroyer Dupleix – both expected within the next week.
The French rescue vessel Alize has been inside the Black Sea basin since late last month.
“The purpose of this is to provide moral support for the regime in Kiev, but also as a demonstration of power to make Russia come to heel. But the ship will also collect information on Russian military activity in Crimea and on the Ukrainian border,” the source said.
Russia’s Black Sea fleet is stationed in Sevastopol in Crimea, which was incorporated into Russia following a referendum last month.
USS Donald Cook had already aroused the anger of Moscow when it arrived in Europe earlier this year, as it carries the sophisticated Aegis weapons and radar system and will form a key part of NATO’s missile defense shield in Europe. Moscow has vehemently opposed the project, saying it is a direct security threat and alters the nuclear balance of power in the region.
Moscow has said that NATO naval movements since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis at the end of last year have violated the Montreux Convention on naval movements in the Black Sea.
According to the treaty, warships from non-Black Sea states can only stay in the basin for up to 21 days consecutively. USS Taylor spent 11 more than that in the region in February and March.
On Thursday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry expressed “bemusement” over the supposed violations.