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Putin threatens to shut gas supply to Eastern Europe

Says 18 nations should help solve Ukrainian debt

MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin warned Europe it may face a shutdown of Russian natural gas supplies if it fails to help Ukraine settle its enormous Russian gas bill — a debt that far exceeds a bailout package offered by the International Monetary Fund.

The Russian president’s letter to 18 mostly Eastern European leaders, released Thursday by the Kremlin, aimed to divide the 28-nation European Union and siphon off to Russia the billions of dollars the international community plans to lend to Ukraine. It was all part of Russia’s efforts to retain control over its struggling neighbor, which is teetering on the verge of financial ruin and facing a pro-Russian separatist mutiny in the east.

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Putin’s message is clear: The EU has tried to lure Ukraine from Russia’s orbit and into its fold, so it should now foot Ukraine’s gas bill — or face the country’s economic collapse and a disruption of its own gas supplies.

The tough warning raises the ante ahead of international talks on settling the Ukrainian crisis that for the first time will bring together the United States, the European Union, Russia, and Ukraine.

Hundreds of pro-Russian protesters — some armed — were still occupying Ukrainian government buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk while authorities sought a peaceful solution Thursday to the five-day standoff. And in northwest Romania, US and Romanian forces kicked off a week of joint military exercises.

The Russian president’s letter aimed to divide the European Union and siphon off billions of dollars in planned loans to Ukraine.

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The amount that Putin claims Ukraine owes is growing by billions of dollars every week — and his letter raises the specter of a new gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine that could affect much of Europe. In 2009, Moscow turned off gas supplies to Kiev in the dead of winter, leading to freezing cities across Eastern Europe as Russian gas stopped moving through Ukrainian pipelines to other nations.

In the letter, Putin said Ukraine owes Russia $17 billion due to the termination of gas discounts and potentially another $18.4 billion as a take-or-pay fine under their 2009 gas contract. He added that on top of that $35.4 billion, Russia also holds $3 billion in Ukrainian government bonds.

The total amount is far greater than the estimated $14 billion to $18 billion bailout that the IMF is considering for Ukraine.

Putin warned that Ukraine’s mounting debt is forcing Moscow to demand advance payments for further gas supplies. He said that if Ukraine failed to make such payments, Russia’s state-controlled gas giant, Gazprom, will ‘‘completely or partially cease gas deliveries.’’

Putin told the leaders that a shutdown of Russian gas supplies will increase the risk of Ukraine siphoning off gas intended for the rest of Europe and will make it difficult to accumulate sufficient reserves to guarantee uninterrupted delivery to European customers next winter. He urged quick talks between Russia and European consumers of Russian gas.

‘‘The fact that our European partners have unilaterally withdrawn from the concerted efforts to resolve the Ukrainian crisis, and even from holding consultations with the Russian side, leaves Russia no alternative,’’ Putin said.

The letter was addressed to 18 heads of states in Europe, including Serbia and Bulgaria, which both rely on Russia for about 90 percent of their gas supplies.

Putin has been tightening the economic screws on the cash-strapped Kiev government since it came to power in February after Ukraine’s Russia-leaning president fled the country after months of protest.

Starting this month, Gazprom scrapped all discounts on gas to Ukraine, meaning a 70 percent price hike. Ukraine has promised the IMF it will cut energy subsidies to residents in exchange for a bailout — which means gas prices were set to rise 50 percent on May 1 even before Putin’s latest salvo.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk added to European fears of a disruption in gas supplies as he accused Ukraine’s national energy company of mismanagement.

‘‘Naftogaz has 7.2 billion cubic meters of gas in underground storages while it is supposed to be 20 billion. It wasn’t me who stole that gas,’’ he said.

Energy Minister Yuri Prodan said this week that Ukraine has not been getting any new gas pumped from Russia amid the pricing dispute, which means it has been relying on storage supplies it previously bought.

The effect of a possible halt in gas supplies could be harsh for Europe but probably not as severe as in January 2009, since Gazprom has built a new pipeline bypassing Ukraine and increased the capacity of existing ones.

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