MOSCOW -- Vladimir Putin on Thursday warned Europe that it may face a shutdown of Russian natural gas supplies if it fails to help Ukraine settle its enormous Russian gas bill, a debt that far exceeds a bailout package the International Monetary Fund has offered.
The Russian president's letter to 18 mostly Eastern European leaders, released Thursday by the Kremlin, aimed to divide the 28-nation European Union and siphon off to Russia the billions that the international community plans to lend to Ukraine. It was all part of Russia's efforts to retain control over its struggling neighbor, which is teetering on the verge of financial ruin and facing a pro-Russian separatist mutiny in the east.
Mr. Putin's message is clear: The EU has tried to lure Ukraine from Russia's orbit and into its fold, so it should now foot Ukraine's gas bill -- or face the country's economic collapse and disruption of its own gas supplies. The tough warning raises the ante ahead of talks on settling the Ukrainian crisis that for the first time will bring together the United States, the European Union, Russia and Ukraine.
The U.S. State Department on Thursday condemned what it called "Russia's efforts to use energy as a tool of coercion against Ukraine."
Hundreds of pro-Russian protesters -- some armed -- were still occupying Ukrainian government buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk while authorities sought a peaceful solution Thursday to the five-day standoff. And in northwest Romania, U.S. and Romanian forces kicked off a week of joint military exercises.
The amount that Mr. Putin claims Ukraine owes is growing by billions every week -- and his letter raises the specter of a new gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine that could affect much of Europe. In 2009, Moscow turned off gas supplies to Kiev in the dead of winter, leading to freezing cities across Eastern Europe, as Russian gas stopped moving through Ukrainian pipelines to other nations.
In the letter, Mr. Putin said Ukraine owes Russia $17 billion due to the termination of gas discounts and potentially another $18.4 billion as a take-or-pay fine under their 2009 gas contract. He added that on top of that $35.4 billion, Russia also holds $3 billion in Ukrainian government bonds. The total amount is far greater than the estimated $14 billion to $18 billion bailout that the IMF is considering for Ukraine.
Mr. Putin warned that Ukraine's mounting debt is forcing Moscow to demand advance payments for further gas supplies. He said that if Ukraine failed to make such payments, Russia's state-controlled gas giant Gazprom will "completely or partially cease gas deliveries."
Mr. Putin told the leaders that a Russian gas shutdown will increase the risk of Ukraine siphoning off gas intended for the rest of Europe and make it difficult to accumulate sufficient reserves to guarantee uninterrupted delivery to European customers next winter. He urged quick talks between Russia and European consumers of its gas.
"The fact that our European partners have unilaterally withdrawn from the concerted efforts to resolve the Ukrainian crisis, and even from holding consultations with the Russian side, leaves Russia no alternative," Mr. Putin said. The letter was addressed to 18 heads of states in Europe, including Serbia and Bulgaria, which both rely on Russia for about 90 percent of their gas supplies.
Mr. Putin has been tightening the economic screws on the cash-strapped Kiev government since it came to power in February, after Ukraine's Russia-leaning president fled the country following months of protest.
Starting this month, Russia state energy giant Gazprom scrapped all discounts on gas to Ukraine, meaning a 70 percent price hike that will add to the debt figure.
Ukraine has also promised the IMF that it will cut energy subsidies to its citizens in exchange for a bailout, which means gas prices were set to rise 50 percent May 1 even before Mr. Putin's latest salvo.