* Ukraine owes Russia $2.2 billion for gas
* Putin calls for talks with Europe on Ukraine economy
* Putin says Ukraine could siphon off gas bound for Europe
(Adds U.S. comment)
By Alexei Anishchuk
MOSCOW, April 10 President Vladimir Putin warned
European leaders on Thursday Russia would cut natural gas
supplies to Ukraine if it did not pay its bills and said this
could lead to a reduction of onward deliveries to Europe.
In a letter to the leaders of 18 countries, he demanded
urgent talks with Europe on pulling Ukraine's economy out of
crisis but made clear his patience was running out over Kiev's
$2.2 billion gas debt to its former Soviet master.
His comments were Russia's most explicit threat to cut off
gas to Ukraine, a move that could worsen a dispute over Moscow's
annexation of Crimea that has resulted in the worst East-West
crisis since the end of the Cold war in 1991.
"...Gazprom is compelled to switch over to advance payment
for gas deliveries and, in the event of further violation of the
conditions of payment, will completely or partially cease gas
deliveries," Putin said in the letter, sent to European leaders
including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country is the
largest consumer of Russian gas in the 28-nation EU.
"Undoubtedly, this is an extreme measure. We fully realise
that this increases the risk of (Ukraine) siphoning off natural
gas passing through Ukraine's territory and heading to European
consumers," Putin wrote in the letter, seen by Reuters.
PREVIOUS SUPPLY CUTS
Russia meets 30 percent of Europe's natural gas demand and
half of its gas transit to the EU goes through Ukraine.
State-controlled gas producer Gazprom stopped pumping gas to
Ukraine during price disputes in the winters of 2005-2006 and
2008-2009, leading to reduced supplies in European countries
that receive Russian gas via pipelines that cross Ukraine.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said he had not seen
Putin's comments but: "We've made clear in the past that it is
wholly inappropriate to use energy exports to achieve diplomatic
or geopolitical objectives.
"We're in constant conversation with our European partners
on matters like this," Carney told reporters on Air Force One,
President Barack Obama's plane. "But again that's just a broad
statement. I haven't seen that latest report."
Kiev failed to meet a deadline on Monday to pay for its
March gas supplies. On Wednesday Putin discussed with his
government how to respond but opted to hold talks with Europe
before pressing ahead with any new punitive action.
"The situation is urgent," Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov,
In the letter, Putin called for talks involving economy,
finance and energy ministers on "concerted actions to stabilise
Ukraine's economy" and ensure Russian gas deliveries.
"We must lose no time in beginning to coordinate concrete
steps. It is towards this end that we appeal to our European
partners," Putin wrote. He said Ukraine's economic crisis was
partly caused by unbalanced trade with the EU.
"It goes without saying that Russia is prepared to
participate in the effort to stabilize and restore Ukraine's
economy. However, not in a unilateral way, but on equal
conditions with our European partners," Putin wrote.
Russia has nearly doubled the price it charges Ukraine for
gas since the ouster in February of President Viktor Yanukovich,
who had pleased Putin by spurning landmark trade and political
deals with the EU in favour of closer Russia ties.
Ukraine says the price increase is politically motivated.
(Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk; Additional reporting by Steve
Holland aboard Air Force One; Writing by Steve Gutterman and
Vladimir Soldatkin, Editing by Timothy Heritage/Mark Heinrich)