Gas row turns the heat on Moscow and Kiev

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RUSSIA and Ukraine will try on Thursday to settle an energy dispute that is threatening to send their strained relations to new depths. A Ukrainian delegation will travel to Moscow for talks on how to clear Kiev's debts to Russia in return for guaranteed gas supplies.

The Russian gas company Gazprom began to reduce deliveries to Ukraine last Thursday, saying Kiev owed it the equivalent of dollars 900m ( pounds 600m). The measure injected new tensions into the Russian-Ukrainian relationship, which has been plagued since the Soviet Union's collapse by arguments over Ukraine's nuclear status, ownership of the Black Sea fleet and sovereignty over the Crimean peninsula.

Officials at Gazprom said yesterday they had resumed normal gas deliveries pending the outcome of Thursday's negotiations in Moscow. But Ukrainian leaders are likely to interpret Gazprom's behaviour over the last week as more evidence that Russia is not reconciled to an independent Ukraine.

Ukraine is vulnerable to an energy squeeze because it depends on Russia for 60 per cent of its gas needs. Now that Moscow charges for its energy in world prices, Ukraine is finding it hard to maintain payments. Industry was ordered last week to cut gas consumption by half, a measure that deepened the crisis facing Ukraine's fragile economy.

Ukraine's latest energy problems began on 20 February when the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, a leading energy producer in Central Asia, cut off gas supplies to Kiev. The Turkmens accused Ukraine of owing them dollars 700m. Ukraine promised to repay the debt partly in hard currency and partly with food and consumer goods.

President Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine suggested in Washington last weekend that Russia's reduction of gas supplies might force his country to reconsider giving up its entire nuclear arsenal. Other Ukrainian officials have suggested that Kiev may take a tougher stance over the Black Sea fleet. Russia has offered to buy Ukraine's share of the fleet in return for cancelling a large part of Ukraine's debts.

Tensions are also rising in Crimea, a region which was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 but whose population is two- thirds Russian. Yuri Meshkov, a Russian nationalist who won Crimea's presidential elections in January, has angered Ukraine's central authorities by offering the job of Crimean deputy prime minister to Yevgeny Saburov, a Russian economist without Ukrainian citizenship.