European Union and US officials have accused Moscow of using its energy supplies as a political tool to put pressure on Ukraine, but EU foreign ministers meeting next week to discuss the crisis are expected to stop short of approving any new sanctions against Russia.
President Vladimir Putin has sent a letter to 18 European nations warning that Russian gas supplies to Ukraine and Europe could be disrupted because Kiev has failed to make any payments on its outstanding $2.2bn debt to the Russian state energy company, Gazprom.
Differing reliance on Russian gas supplies across the 28 EU member states has been reflected in their approach to sanctions, with more caution coming from some eastern European countries which are heavily dependent on Russian energy. The fear is that Moscow could turn off the taps in retaliation for any sanctions targeting its energy sector.
Mr Putin’s missive appeared to stoke those concerns on Thursday, when he noted that “further violation” of Kiev’s payment terms could “completely or partially cease gas deliveries” and affect Europe.
On Friday, EU officials insisted supplies were currently normal and stable, and that Russia was expected to respect its existing commitments. “It is in everyone’s interest that energy is not used as a political tool,” said Pia Ahrenkilde, a spokeswoman for the European Commission.
Mr Putin appeared to address some concerns, saying: “We do not intend and do not plan to shut off the gas for Ukraine.”
But one EU diplomat said there was little concrete sign from Moscow of any de-escalation of tensions, and cited the reported build-up of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine and Mr Putin’s letter. “[Mr Putin’s] approach on gas is yet another example of Russia using every means to create pressure on Ukraine,” the official said.
In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said the US condemned Russia’s efforts to use energy as a “tool of coercion”. President Barack Obama also told the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, that the West should be prepared to impose further sanctions on Russia if the situation worsened.
So far, the US and EU have placed travel bans and assets freezes on dozens of Russian and Ukrainian individuals in response to the annexation of Crimea last month. While EU diplomats have said that Monday’s talks will discuss extending the list to include individuals involved in the recent occupations of state buildings in three eastern Ukrainian cities, no final decision will be taken.
The European Commission is also working on proposals for tougher sanctions that would hit Russian economic sectors, including energy, although agreement has not yet been reached among the 28 states over exactly what actions by Moscow would trigger such sanctions.
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