Russian president Vladimir Putin has warned the European Union that the Ukraine conflict could put winter gas supplies at risk, ahead of top-level talks on the crisis today.
Before flying to Milan, where he is expected to meet Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and several EU leaders, Mr Putin said Russia would cut gas flow to Ukraine if it siphoned off fuel moving through its pipelines en-route to EU states.
As well as addressing an ongoing gas payment and pricing dispute between Ukraine and Russia, Mr Putin is expected to discuss a shaky ceasefire in eastern Ukraine with the leaders of Germany, France, Britain and Italy at the EU-Asia summit, in northern Italy.
“There will be no crises through a fault of Russian participants in energy co-operation with Europe. But there are major transit risks,” Mr Putin said in Belgrade, where he attended a large military parade and fly-past and received Serbia’s highest state honour.
“If we see that our Ukrainian partners – as in 2008 – start siphoning off our gas from the export pipeline system in an unauthorised manner then we will also – like in 2008 – gradually reduce supplies by the amount that has been stolen,” he said.
“But I am very much hoping that it will not come to that. I am hoping that they will be able to agree on everything and draw a line under all the disputes.”
The Ukraine crisis has dragged relations between Russia and the West to their lowest ebb since the cold war, and Brussels fears the Kremlin could use its dominant energy position over the winter to punish Kiev and put pressure on EU states to soften their stance on economic sanctions against Moscow.
The next meeting of energy officials from Russia, Ukraine and the EU is scheduled in for Tuesday in Berlin.
Major EU powers, and the United States, blame Russia for fomenting Ukraine’s conflict, sending troops into the east of the country and allowing fighters and weapons to reach separatist rebels there. Moscow rejects those claims.
Many view with scepticism a peace plan agreed in Minsk last month, seeing little room for compromise between pro-western Kiev leaders, and the militants and their alleged supporter Russia.
Moscow has opposed Kiev's tilt towards the EU since the ousting of Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovich last February.
"It is above all Russia's task to say clearly that the Minsk plan is really respected," German chancellor Angela Merkel said as she arrived in Milan.
“There are still very, very big shortcomings. But it is important to seek dialogue here.”
Mr Putin told Serbian media that US sanctions on Russia and comments on the alleged security threat posed by Moscow were “hostile”.
“We are hoping that our partners will understand the recklessness of attempts to blackmail Russia [and] remember what discord between large nuclear powers can do to strategic stability,” Mr Putin said.
He added: “Attempts to put pressure on Russia . . . only complicate dialogue.”