MOSCOW – Russia halted natural gas deliveries to Ukraine on Monday, spurning Ukraine’s offer to pay some of its multibillion-dollar gas debt and demanding upfront payments for future supplies.
The decision, coming amid deep tensions over eastern Ukraine, provoked strong words from both sides but does not immediately affect the crucial flow of Russian gas to Europe. Ukraine has enough reserves to last until December, according to its state gas company Naftogaz.
Still, the Russian move could disrupt Europe’s long-term energy supplies if the issue is not resolved, analysts said. Previous gas disputes left Ukraine and some Balkan nations shivering for nearly two weeks in the dead of winter.
The gas conflict is part of a wider dispute over whether Ukraine aligns itself with Russia or with the 28-nation European Union and comes amid a crisis in relations following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March. Ukraine accuses Russia of supporting an armed separatist insurgency in its eastern regions, which Russia denies.
Ukraine’s new president, meanwhile, said Monday that he will propose a detailed peace plan this week that includes a cease-fire with the separatist rebels. But before that happens, the armed forces must secure control over Ukraine’s porous border with Russia, President Petro Poroshenko said at a meeting of his national security council.
“As soon as the border is closed, we can immediately declare a cease-fire,” he said. “Declaring a cease-fire while the border is open would be irresponsible.”
Ukraine, one of the most energy inefficient countries in Europe, has been chronically behind on payments for the Russian natural gas needed to heat its homes and fuel its industries. In addition, Russia had been giving its neighbor cut-rate sweetheart deals on gas for various political reasons, a practice that came to a halt April 1.
Russia had demanded $1.95 billion by Monday for past-due bills. At talks over the weekend in Kiev, Ukraine was ready to accept a compromise of paying $1 billion now and more later, but Russia rejected the offer, the European Commission said.
Sergei Kupriyanov, spokesman for Russian gas giant Gazprom, said since Ukraine missed the deadline, from now on it had to pay in advance for energy. Yet that’s a nearly impossible demand for the cash-strapped nation.