Russia pushes back Ukraine gas cut ultimatum
KYIV - Agence France-Presse
AFP PhotoCrisis-hit Ukraine won a vital reprieve from Russia on Monday when Moscow pushed back until next week a possible cut in gas shipments that would also impact parts of Europe.
Russia's surprise decision came hours before the two sides were to lock horns in Brussels over a price dispute that emerged when Moscow cancelled the discounts it awarded pro-Kremlin leader Viktor Yanukovych prior to his February fall.
Moscow had threatened to halt all shipments to Ukraine -- a vital gas transit nation now seeking a closer alliance with the West -- from Tuesday in a repetition of interruptions that also hurt swathes of Europe in 2006 and 2009.
Ukraine received another vital boost as it battles a bloody separatist insurgency along its Russian border with a visit to Kiev by US Assistant Secretary of Defence Derek Chollet.
But the seven-week campaign continued unabated when pro-Russian gunmen attacked a Ukrainian border guard service camp in the eastern rust belt district of Lugansk.
The service said seven border guards were wounded in a heavy battle that began in the dawn hours and was still raging on Monday afternoon.
Russia's state-run gas giant Gazprom -- long accused of acting as the Kremlin's political enforcer against neighbours seeking closer ties to the West -- said it "welcomed" Ukraine's decision to transfer a $786-million payment to partially cover its debts.
"We welcome Ukraine starting to pay back its debt and postpone the pre-payment regime until June 9," Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller said in a statement."
Ukraine had branded Gazprom's decision to nearly double its gas price a form of "economic aggression" and balked at Russia's demand for advance payments for deliveries starting in June.
Gazprom had said it would halt all shipments to Ukraine unless it paid for June deliveries by Monday night.
Russian gas transits through Ukraine to supply about 15 percent of European needs and a top EU envoy is now urgently seeking a compromise that could save 18 member states from seeing their deliveries start to dwindle as early as next week.
Gazprom hinted on Monday that it might push back its ultimatum even further if Ukraine started making partial payments for April and May deliveries.
"The first payment opens the way for negotiations on the entire set of issues," the Russian energy ministry said in a separate statement.
Analysts believe that a long-term compromise was possible because Russia would prefer to avoid complicating its relations with Europe amid US threats to impose wider economic sanctions for its perceived involvement in the eastern insurgency.
Ukraine's president-elect Petro Poroshenko -- a charismatic confectionery tycoon who scored a crushing victory in a May 25 election and refuses to recognise Russia's March annexation of Crimea -- is seeking a closer Western military alliance that could protect his splintered country's sovereignty.
The visit by Chollet, Pentagon's second-ranked commander comes ahead of Poroshenko's first meeting on Wednesday in Warsaw with US President Barack Obama.
Ukraine and the former Soviet satellites of eastern Europe are anxious about the impact of a big speech Obama gave last week in which he put American diplomacy above military might in confronting threats such as that of Russia's expansion.
But US officials insist that Washington's commitment to Ukraine remained strong.
"The US condemns and rejects the occupation of Crimea and remains committed to working with Ukraine to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict," Chollet said after talks with Ukraine's acting defence minister and the head of the national security council.
He added that Washington was in discussions on proving Ukraine $18 million in military assistance and helping Kiev "build highly effective armed forces" -- comments that are sure to irk the Kremlin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spelt out the threat of an outright invasion of Ukraine when he sought and won parliament's authorisation on March 1 to use any means necessary to "protect" his compatriots living across the border.
But the drumbeats of war began fading last month when Putin surprised many by suddenly softening his tone.
The Russian leader advised Ukraine's eastern Lugansk and Donetsk regions against holding May 11 independence referendums that went ahead anyway but which he then refused to recognise as binding.
Putin also promised to "respect" the outcome of Ukraine's own election and began pulling back the 40,000 troops he had parked just inside Russia's border in an ominous show of strength that touched off near-panic in Kiev.
Western diplomats remain sceptical about the sincerity of Putin's restraint.
On Monday Russia piled further diplomatic pressure on Kiev by announcing that it would submit a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council on creating a corridor to allow civilians to escape areas affected by the fighting.
Ukraine has previously rejected the need for such an "aid corridor" out of fear that Russia might want to send in troops to supervise the evacuation.
But analysts agree that the Kremlin's softening in tone provides an opening for Poroshenko as he tries to arrange the first meeting by a Ukrainian leader with Putin since the seizure of Crimea sparked the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.