Ukraine mourns troops as gas talks run down to wire
Ukraine on Sunday mourned 49 killed when pro-Kremlin rebels downed their army plane as Kiev prepared to host last-gasp talks with Moscow to avert a Russian gas cut that would also hit Europe.
Flags were lowered across the crisis-hit nation while television stations inserted an image of a burning candle into their frames after Ukrainian forces suffered the single-biggest loss of life in their escalating two-month push to reclaim control of separatist areas of the industrial east.
But the gas negotiations and commemorations were both clouded by a new and bitter diplomatic feud that exploded after an irate Ukrainian mob smashed the Russia embassy’s windows and overturned cars while the police looked on.
Ukraine’s new more nationalist leaders and their Western allies accuse Russia of supplying weapons and even tanks to the insurgents in a bid to break up its western neighbour following the February ouster of a pro-Kremlin regime.
NATO released satellite images purporting to show three Russian tanks that had crossed the border and were later spotted being raced across the eastern city of Donetsk by militants flying the flag of their self-declared “People’s Republic”.
But Moscow has hit back by accusing Western powers of backing dangerous Ukrainian “fascists” who are prosecuting the east’s ethnic Russians and waging a “punitive operation” against their own people.
– Monday morning gas cut –
The third “gas war” between Russia and Ukraine since 2006 flared up when Moscow nearly doubled its rates in the wake of the deadly winter uprising that now threatens to pull Kiev out of the Kremlin’s historic orbit for the first time.
Ukraine receives half its gas supplies from Russia and transports 15 percent of the fuel consumed in Europe — a reality that prompted EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger to try and urgently broker a long-term solution to the dispute.
Kiev said heading into Saturday’s first round of negotiations that it was ready to make a $1.95 billion (1.45 billion euro) payment demanded by Moscow if Russia agreed to cut its ongoing price to $326 from $485.50 for 1,000 cubic metres of gas.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin has called $385 per 1,000 cubic metres his final offer and threatened to turn off Ukraine’s taps if no payment was made by Monday at 10:00 am (0700 GMT).
The negotiations broke up after just two hours late Saturday without even a hint of a comprise.
“No solution was found and the negotiations will continue Sunday morning,” Ukrainian Energy Minister Yuriy Prodan told reporters outside the plush central Kiev hotel hosting the high-stakes meeting.
Oettinger said Sunday’s round should begin at 09:30 am (0730 GMT).
But Moscow officials remained conspicuously silent and Ukraine’s energy ministry conceded Sunday morning that Russia’s state gas firm Gazprom was yet to confirm its attendance.
“Gazprom has still not confirmed its participation,” a Ukrainian energy ministry spokeswoman said.
But she added that both Oettinger and Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller remained in Kiev.
“There is a likelihood that the talks can still be saved,” she said by telephone.
– ‘Hands off Ukraine’ –
Ukraine’s newly-elected President Petro Poroshenko tapped into the fury provoked by Saturday’s plane downing near the eastern city of Lugansk by vowing to deal the insurgents “an adequate response”.
His comments were soon followed by what appeared to be a spontaneous protest outside the Russian embassy in southeastern Kiev that soon turned violent.
Nationalists with signs reading “Kremlin — hands off Ukraine!” soon started climbing the compound’s perimeter fence while others smashed the building’s windows with boulders and overturned diplomats’ cars.
One man managed to pull down the Russian national tricolour with a long metal pole while about a dozen police officers looked on before simply leaving the scene.
The Russian foreign ministry called the lack of a police response “a grave violation of Ukraine’s international obligations” and accused Europe of condoning the attack.
“Oh, how the (Ukrainians) are trying to pull us into a war,” lower house of parliament’s foreign affairs committee chief Alexei Pushkov tweeted.
Washington also delivered Kiev a rare rebuke by urging “authorities to meet their Vienna Convention obligations to provide adequate security”.
– ‘Extreme concern’
German Chancellor Angel Merkel and French President Francois Hollande expressed “extreme concern” over Ukraine’s spiralling violence in a joint phone conversation with Putin in which they said it was important to rapidly reach a ceasefire.
And British Foreign Secretary William Hague said “the international community stands ready to impose further sanctions if Russia continues to provoke instability in Ukraine”.
But the rebels responsible for shooting the Il-76 transporter out of the sky vowed to fight the Ukrainian forces until they were driven out of the coal and steel producing region for good.
“They brought machine guns and ammunition,” a rebel commander name Mudzhakhed while examining the charred remains of the plane in a wheat field outside Lugansk.
“They knew where they were flying and they were warned,” said another man who identified himself only as Roman.
“We are the people of Lugansk. Ukraine does not exist anymore.”