KIEV, Aug 16 (Reuters) - Ukraine has begun test imports of gas from Slovakia via an upgraded pipeline, the head of Ukrainian state-owned gas company Naftogaz said on Saturday, as the country tries to secure greater energy independence from Russia.
Last year, Russia supplied about half of the gas Ukraine used, but Gazprom cut supplies on June 16 in a row over pricing and in the wake of Moscow's annexation of Crimea.
Russia has come under heavy Western sanctions over its move on Crimea and accusations it is supporting separatists in east Ukraine with troops and funds, claims it denies.
Ukraine, which is trying to source more gas from the European Union and cut consumption levels from last year's 50 billion cubic metres (bcm), hopes to increase its own annual gas production from current levels of 20 billion cubic metres (bcm).
The Slovak pipeline - an upgraded older link leading from the Vojany power station near the Ukrainian border to the western Ukrainian town of Uzhorod - can supply up to 10 bcm of gas a year.
"Test pumping of gas has started from Slovakia to Ukraine via Vojany-Uzhorod. This pipeline could supply up to 40 percent of the country's gas import needs," Naftogaz chief executive Andriy Kobolev said in a post on Facebook.
The test imports from Slovakia amount to 2 million cubic metres a day, a spokesman for the state pipeline operator Ukrtransgaz said.
The pipeline is expected to function on an interruptible basis from September and on a firm basis from March 2015.
Ukraine is a transit route for roughly half of the gas Russia ships to the EU, which relies on Moscow for about a third of its energy. (Reporting by Natalia Zinets and Pavel Polityuk; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Sophie Hares)