ARMED pro-Russian militants raised the Russian flag in an eastern Ukrainian city yesterday, deepening a standoff with Moscow which, Kiev warned, was dragging Europe closer to a “gas war” that could disrupt supplies.
At least 20 men armed with pistols and rifles took over the police and security services headquarters in Slaviansk, about 90 miles from the border with Russia.
Officials said the men had seized hundreds of pistols from arsenals in the buildings. The militants replaced the Ukrainian flag on one of the buildings with the red, white and blue Russian ensign.
Armed masked men in camouflage clothes stood near the building, a witness said. They were wearing orange and black ribbons, a symbol of the Soviet victory in the Second World War adopted by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. To date at least three other east Ukraine cities have seen similar occupations: Donetsk; Luhansk; and Kharkiv.
Some residents helped the militants build barricades using tyres in anticipation that police would try to force them out, witnesses claimed. But there was no sign that any police action was imminent.
The occupation is a potential flashpoint because if any of the militants are killed or hurt by Ukrainian forces, that could prompt the Kremlin to intervene to protect the local Russian-speaking population, a repeat of the scenario in the Crimea region.
Meanwhile, in Donetsk, which lies south of Slaviansk, the regional police chief said he would quit his post, bowing to demands from pro-Russian protesters. Above the police headquarters, the Ukrainian flag has been replaced with a separatist flag. “In accordance with your demands, I am stepping down,” Kostyantyn Pozhydayev told protesters.
Russia denies any plan to send in forces or split Ukraine, but the western-leaning authorities in Kiev believe Russia is trying to create a pretext to interfere again. Nato says Russia’s armed forces are massing on Ukraine’s eastern border, while Moscow says they are on normal manoeuvres. Ukraine’s acting foreign minister. Andrii Deshchytsia, said he had spoken to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and demanded Moscow stop “provocative actions” by its agents in eastern Ukraine.
Russia and Ukraine have been locked in confrontation since protests in Kiev forced Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich from office, and the Kremlin sent troops into Crimea. While the crisis within Ukraine itself is still unresolved, the gas dispute threatens to affect millions of people across Europe.
A large proportion of the natural gas European Union states buy from Russia is pumped via Ukraine, so if Russia does cut off Ukraine for non-payment of its bills, customers further west will see supplies disrupted.
Russia is demanding Kiev pay a far higher price for its gas, and settle its bills. Russian state gas giant Gazprom and its Ukrainian counterpart, Naftogaz, are in talks, but the chances of a deal are slim. “I would say we are coming nearer to a solution of the situation, but one in the direction that is bad for Ukraine,” said Ukrainian energy minister Yuri Prodan. “We are probably steering towards Russia turning off its gas provision.”
That raised the spectre of a repeat of past “gas wars”, when Ukraine’s gas was cut off, with a knock-on effect on supplies across the EU.
The scope for compromise narrowed after the Naftogaz chief executive revealed that Kiev was suspending payments to Gazprom for gas supplies, pending a conclusion of the talks over a new deal.
In fact, it has been claimed Ukraine has de facto stopped payments already because it failed to make an instalment of more than £300 million due earlier this month to Gazprom.
But the decision to formally suspend payments shows the gulf between the two sides. Moscow says it does not want to turn off Ukraine’s gas if it can be avoided, and that it will honour all commitments to supply its EU customers.
Kiev and Brussels have been scrambling to blunt the impact of any decision by Moscow to cut off gas to Ukraine. In particular, they are working on ways to keep supplies flowing to EU states, and for those countries to then pump the gas back to Ukraine.