Russia, Ukraine 'heading for new gas conflict'

12th August 2011, Comments 0 comments

Russia warned neighbour Ukraine on Friday against acting unreasonably amid reports that the two sides were approaching a gas war similar to a 2009 standoff that briefly cut supplies to EU states.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovych held a summit in Sochi on Thursday aimed at easing tensions that have grown over the last months over gas prices and Ukrainian moves to promote EU ties.

But the meeting ended with a conspicuous lack of any statement beyond formal protocol and a source in the Kremlin told Russian news agencies Friday that Ukraine was acting out of line.

The official accused Kiev of trying to politicise the gas dispute and flatly rejected the idea of Ukraine getting special privileges instead of formally joining an economic union Russia has formed with Belarus and Kazakhstan.

The Russian source also appeared to dismiss the idea of setting a lower gas rate for Ukraine in the immediate term.

"The Russian side underscored the need to follow the existing agreement on gas cooperation and not to politicise the issue," the unnamed Kremlin source said.

The official added that Ukraine could only join the Russian-led customs union "as a full-fledged participant" and not as a special member who could also negotiate special trade terms with the European Union.

Russia had hoped that Yanukovych would embrace strong relations with Moscow after defeating the leaders of the pro-Western Orange Revolution in 2010 elections but now appears to feel snubbed by his pursuit of EU ties.

The Kremlin official's comments suggest that a new chill has entered Russia's relations with its western neighbour which were strained badly at height of the 2009 gas war.

Sources and Russian press reports said Medvedev's talks with Yanukovych were originally supposed to have taken place on July 31 in Ukraine but the Kremlin scrapped the visit due to the tensions.

The last gas conflict ended when Ukraine in 2009 signed a 10-year gas supply contract with Russia's Gazprom that it is now trying to re-negotiate because it is being charged more than some richer European states.

The contract was signed by Ukraine's former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko -- an opposition leader who is now on trial in Kiev over the deal in a process that has added to the tensions with Moscow.

Russian news reports said Gazprom was willing to lower the price in exchange for a merger with Ukraine's state energy firm Naftogas -- the Kremlin has backed such an alliance in the past.

But Ukraine has reportedly balked because this would give Russia direct control of the former Soviet republic's domestic gas transmission network.

"The gas transmission network and Naftogas are the basis of Ukraine's sovereignty," the Kommersant business daily quoted a Ukrainian government official as saying.

"We do not trade away our sovereignty for cash," the Ukrainian official said.

Another official in Kiev firmly told the newspaper: "We are morally preparing for a possible repeat of the gas war."

Kommersant said Yanukovych had hinted to a group of reporters as he headed into the Sochi meeting that he was ready to take Russia to court over the gas dispute.

The Ukrainian president said the two sides should try to "settle on gas prices without going to court," Kommersant said.

© 2011 AFP

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