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Russia’s Gazprom cuts gas to Ukraine in a new phase of their conflict

FILE - In this Wednesday May 21, 2014 file photo, gas pipeline station workers walk past the gas pressure engines in Zakarpattia region, Western Ukraine, 15 kms on border with Slovakia in Uzhgorod, Ukraine. Russia on Monday, June 16, 2014, cut gas supplies to Ukraine as a payment deadline passed and negotiators failed to reach a deal on gas prices and unpaid bills amid continued fighting in eastern Ukraine. The decision does not immediately affect the gas flow to Europe, but could disrupt the long-term energy supply to the region if the issue is not resolved, analysts said. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov, file)

FILE - In this Wednesday May 21, 2014 file photo, gas pipeline station workers walk past the gas pressure engines in Zakarpattia region, Western Ukraine, 15 kms on border with Slovakia in Uzhgorod, Ukraine. Russia on Monday, June 16, 2014, cut gas supplies to Ukraine as a payment deadline passed and negotiators failed to reach a deal on gas prices and unpaid bills amid continued fighting in eastern Ukraine. The decision does not immediately affect the gas flow to Europe, but could disrupt the long-term energy supply to the region if the issue is not resolved, analysts said. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov, file)

Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine yesterday, a move that will inflict immediate pain on its turbulent neighbor and could eventually affect other gas-dependent European nations.

The cutoff intensifies pressure on Ukraine, which is contending with an increasingly violent pro-Russian insurgency in its east and with economic challenges that were crippling even before the upheaval sparked by the ouster of Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych in February.

And if the gas flow is halted for a long time, winter stockpiles across Europe could be depleted, causing problems across the continent, particularly in eastern European countries that depend solely on Russia for their gas.

Russia’s giant gas company, Gazprom, said yesterday that it had notified the European Commission of possible shortfalls following the cutoff. About 15 percent of Europe’s natural gas supplies cross Ukrainian territory.

The two sides appeared yesterday to be readying for a protracted battle. The head of Ukraine’s state-owned natural gas company said it could go without new supplies until December, if necessary.

“We will supply gas only in the amount paid for,” Gazprom spokesman Sergey Kupriyanov told reporters yesterday in explaining the action against Ukraine. “They paid zero; correspondingly it’s zero.”

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, meanwhile, called the Ukrainian refusal to pay its gas debts in full “blackmail.”

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk said yesterday he was not interested in accepting higher prices for Russian energy only to allow Russia to “spend this money on weapons, tanks and planes to bomb Ukrainian territory,” a charge the Kremlin has denied.

Russia also halted the import of Ukrainian potatoes yesterday, saying they had been found to be contaminated – an action that will hurt Ukraine’s agricultural sector. Russia has frequently restricted food imports from countries with which it is having political disputes.

The cutoff came on a day when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko proposed a cease-fire with the pro-Russian separatists but said that the army must first regain control of the porous border with Russia, which he hoped could be done in a week.

In a meeting with his security team, Poroshenko said government troops have already re-established control of stretches of the border where fighters and equipment have slipped across from Russia.

Poroshenko first proposed a truce in his inaugural address when he assumed office June 7, but rebels rebuffed his call. He also said yesterday that he plans to introduce within days constitutional amendments that would give more powers to Ukraine’s regions, a key demand of the pro-Russian separatists, as well as Russia.

Andriy Parubiy, the head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 “armed terrorists” are in Ukraine’s east – a vast number, if accurate.

He also said that a significant force of well-equipped soldiers has been redeployed close to territories bordering Ukraine in the past day or two. The force’s assets include personnel and transport planes used by the Russian air assault division, he said. There was no immediate response from Russia.

Fierce fighting persisted in Ukraine’s east yesterday. In Donetsk, gunmen took over several buildings in the city, including the regional treasury, the national bank and the tax administration. Serhiy Taruta, the governor of Donetsk, said the takeover means the state may have to stop paying salaries and pensions.

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