Tough-talking Putin rejects EU proposal on energy supplies

President Vladimir Putin has icily rejected US and EU criticism of Russia's purported use of its energy resources as a political weapon, and publicly rebuffed European attempts to gain access to his country's vast gas pipeline network.

His tough stance, at a one-day EU-Russia meeting at Sochi, on the Black Sea, sets the stage for what may be a fractious summit of G8 leaders in St Petersburg in July, an event being chaired by Moscow for the first time.

One of the G8 summit's major themes is the security of energy supplies, yet it seems Russia and the West are growing further apart on the issue.

The European delegation, made up of the European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, the Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, and the EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, had hoped Mr Putin would at least pay lip service to EU sensitivities about Europe's growing dependence on Moscow for its oil and gas.

They had also hoped he would agree to ratify an energy charter giving European firms access to Russia's gas pipeline network. But in a sign of how strongly he feels he is in the right, he disappointed the Europeans on both fronts. Instead he made clear he would press ahead with plans to turn his country into a bigger energy superpower and would conduct relations with former Soviet states such as Ukraine as he, and not Brussels or Washington, saw fit. Asked about Ukraine, Mr Putin said icily: "As far as our relations with other countries, we will discuss our relations with them directly."

Russia supplies one quarter of the EU's gas needs, a figure expected to rise to more than 60 per cent by 2030, and some EU countries have questioned the wisdom of the arrangement after Moscow cut gas supplies to Ukraine for a few days in January in a row over pricing.

Mr Putin dismissed such concerns while insisting Russia had the right to sell its energy wherever it liked. "We are building up, have built up, and will continue to build up our potential as an energy supplier. And we will offer these resources on world markets. If our European partners expect us to let them into the holy of holies, into our economy, we expect reciprocal steps from them in the most critical and important spheres for us."

Russia wants to sell its gas direct to European consumers rather than through intermediaries, which has alarmed European politicians. The EU and Mr Putin tried to play down their differences yesterday, smiling and openly admitting that there were serious disagreements but that they would try to resolve them.

In a long-awaited goodwill gesture they signed an agreement easing visa requirements for various categories of Russian citizens wishing to visit the EU.

Mr Putin was particularly incensed by criticism from US Vice-President Dick Cheney this month. Mr Cheney accused Moscow of rolling back democratic reforms and of using its energy resources to blackmail other countries but Mr Putin said his allegations smacked of hypocrisy.

"We see how the United States defends its interests, we see what methods and means they use for this," he said. "When we fight for our interests, we also look for the most acceptable methods, and I find it strange this seems inexplicable to some."

Four former Soviet republics - Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan - have formed an organisation called the Organisation for Democracy and Economic Development to counterbalance Russia's energy clout in the region but it remains to be seen how effective it will be.

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