Ukraine sceptical as Russia softens rhetoric

Country ‘as close to civil war as you can get’, says Russian foreign minister

A Ukrainian miner smokes outside the Kalinin mine in the eastern city of Horlivka yesterday. Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev yesterday suggested Moscow may be open to compromise on Ukraine’s gas debt and the price it pays for Russian energy. Photograph: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

A Ukrainian miner smokes outside the Kalinin mine in the eastern city of Horlivka yesterday. Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev yesterday suggested Moscow may be open to compromise on Ukraine’s gas debt and the price it pays for Russian energy. Photograph: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

 

Russia has struck a more conciliatory note over the crisis in Ukraine, as the US claimed western sanctions on Moscow were starting to bite. Having previously suggested that Ukraine’s May 25th presidential election would be pointless and its winner illegitimate given unrest in eastern regions, and taken an uncompromising line on Kiev’s gas debt, Russia appeared to soften slightly on both points yesterday.

“If there is somebody who emerges as a figure with the support of the majority of Ukrainians, of course it’s easier to have such an interlocutor than self-appointed people,” said Moscow’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Warning that Ukraine was “as close to civil war as you can get”, he said “any election is a move in the right direction and we will have to judge these elections by their outcome . . . It has to be good enough for Ukrainians.”


Oligarch connections
Acknowledging that he was well acquainted with Ukraine’s leading presidential candidate, billionaire “oligarch” Petro Poroshenko, Mr Lavrov said: “We can do business with anyone.”

He also insisted, however, that Kiev halt a military “anti- terrorist” operation against pro-Russian militants in eastern regions before the elections – something Ukraine’s leaders have refused to do. Kiev believes Moscow is now trying to feign distance from the insurgents to avert tougher western retaliation.

Also yesterday, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev suggested Moscow may be open to compromise on Ukraine’s gas debt and the price it pays for Russian energy.

Earlier this week, Russia threatened to cut supplies next month if Kiev failed to pay arrears that allegedly stand at $3.51 billion (€2.56 billion), not including advance payment that Moscow is demanding for June exports to Ukraine.

“Nobody ever said, hand over $4 billion straight away, rather show that you are ready to act . . . If they pay part of it, that’s the minimum requirement for resuming talks,” Mr Medvedev said.

Kiev says it will consider paying some debt if Russia reverses a sharp hike in gas prices imposed after Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovich was ousted in February; Ukraine also asks why it should pay Russia anything after Moscow annexed Crimea in March.

Questioned on whether Russia might reduce the gas price, Mr Medvedev said: “Of course it is possible. It’s a question for negotiations.”


Ratcheting sanctions
The EU and US accuse Russia of destabilising Ukraine to stop its new leaders taking it towards the European Union, and pledge to ratchet up their current sanctions on Moscow if it meddles in the presidential vote.

The US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland said yesterday that “if the May 25th elections don’t go forward, if Russia continues to destabilise. . . there will be further, deeper and, now, sectoral economic sanctions on Russia . . . And we do believe what we have already done is starting to bite.”

Moscow has dismissed the impact of sanctions and Mr Lavrov said there were signs that some EU states were already “experiencing fatigue” with the measures.

Russia accuses Washington of playing the leading role in fomenting Ukraine’s pro-western revolution, and Mr Lavrov said the main US aim was “not to let Europeans go on their own . . . and not to let Nato lose the purpose of its existence.”


Nato membership
Moscow’s top diplomat said it would be up to Ukrainians to decide whether to ultimately join the EU, but that Nato membership would be an issue “not only of the Ukrainian people and Nato, but of Russia.”

“Attempts to draw Ukraine into Nato would be very negative for the entire system of European security and we would be categorically against it.”

The Kremlin has claimed the right to defend Russian speakers in Ukraine from allegedly “fascist” supporters of the new government, and Mr Lavrov claimed there existed a “family feeling” between the two countries.

“Kiev is the mother of Russian cities . . . (Russian) Orthodox Christianity was born on the territory of Ukraine. We don’t consider ourselves foreigners [there].”

Pro-western Ukrainians who comprise and support the new government reject Russian meddling in the country’s affairs. Kiev aired proposals for the decentralisation of power to the regions yesterday, at the start of “unity” talks with figures from across the country.

No one associated with the armed rebels was invited, however, and the rebels have vowed to block the presidential election in Donetsk and Luhansk regions.