President Vladimir Putin warned on Thursday that Russian gas supplies to Europe could be disrupted if Moscow cuts the flow to Ukraine over unpaid bills, drawing a U.S. accusation that it is using energy “as a tool of coercion”.
In a letter to the leaders of 18 European countries, Putin made clear that his patience would run out over Kiev’s $2.2 billion gas debt to Russia unless a solution could be brokered urgently.
Russia has nearly doubled the gas price it charges Ukraine, whose economy is in crisis, since pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich was overthrown two months ago. Russia then annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea, provoking the biggest confrontation with the West since the Cold War.
Putin said Russian exporter Gazprom would demand advance payment for gas supplies to Ukraine and “in the event of further violation of the conditions of payment will completely or partially cease gas deliveries”.
That could have knock-on effects for European Union countries, much of whose Russian gas flows in pipelines across Ukraine. “We fully realise that this increases the risk of (Ukraine) siphoning off natural gas passing through Ukraine’s territory and heading to European consumers,” the letter said.
Russia meets 30 percent of Europe’s natural gas demand and half of this goes through Ukraine.
The United States accused Moscow of using its vast energy reserves to pressure the former Soviet republic. “We condemn Russia’s efforts to use energy as a tool of coercion against Ukraine,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
U.S. President Barack Obama, in a phone call on Thursday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “underscored the need for the United States, European Union and other global partners to be prepared to meet further Russian escalation with additional sanctions,” the White House said.
State-controlled Gazprom stopped pumping gas to Ukraine during price disputes in the winters of 2005-2006 and 2008-2009, leading to reduced supplies in European countries.
Russian officials say gas dealings with Ukraine are purely commercial and it was forced to move after Kiev failed to meet a deadline on Monday to pay for its March supplies.