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Last updated: March 7, 2014 3:48 pm
Ukraine is ready to talk to Russia but only if Moscow pulls its troops out of Crimea and respects international agreements, Arseniy Yatseniuk, Kiev’s interim prime minister, said on Friday.
● Ukraine PM gives conditions for talks with Moscow
● Obama tells Putin in phone call that Russia’s actions are a violation of Ukraine sovereignty
● Plane carrying Ukraine PM intercepted at Vienna airport after alleged terrorism threat
● Ukraine to participate at Paralympics in Russia, which opens on Friday
● US authorises sanctions and visa restrictions on those deemed to be threatening Ukraine
● Pro-Russia politicians in Crimea announce March 16 referendum on joining Russia
His firm line follows his earlier statements defending the territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea. It comes hours after US President Barack Obama told Vladimir Putin that Russia had violated Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity” and a day after the Moscow-aligned leadership of Crimea accelerated plans to secede and join Russia.
Mr Yatseniuk said Ukraine had made clear its readiness to talk to Russia. But for this to happen “our Russian neighbours, who should be our Russian partners” had to meet conditions.
“First, they must pull out the troops. Next, fulfil bilateral and multilateral commitments that Russia has signed. Third, stop supporting separatists and terrorists, who are present in the territory of Crimea. Fourth, we want to say to the world, that, yes, Ukraine and Russia have begun to build a new type of relationship.”
Fresh from his return from Thursday’s EU Brussels summit, Mr Yatseniuk acknowledged the diplomatic messages flying between Moscow and the west, saying: “There are many signals. But there are no decisions yet.”
Russia has refused to meet any senior Ukrainian government officials since the fall of toppled president Viktor Yanukovich.
Moscow has also declined to join a so-called contact group on Ukraine, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German foreign minister, said on Friday.
Armed men in Crimea on Friday blocked OSCE monitors from entering the autonomous region for the second day. The several dozen observers were forced to turn back and return to their base in eastern Ukraine.
The move by Crimea, which in effect is controlled by Russian troops, to bring forward to next weekend a vote on seceding from Ukraine dramatically raised the stakes in the worst east-west confrontation since the end of the cold war.
Alexei Miller, chief executive of Gazprom, the Russian energy company, on Friday warned that it might cut off supplies to Ukraine if its debts remained unpaid. The contractual deadline for Ukraine to pay for gas supplied in February passed on Friday, he said, meaning that the country now had overdue debts to Gazprom of $1.9bn.
“For our part we have always fulfilled and will continue to fulfil our contractual obligations. But we cannot supply gas for free. Either Ukraine pays off its debts and pays for current supply, or there is a risk of a return to the situation of the start of 2009,” he told reporters, referring to the last time Gazprom cut supplies to Ukraine in a dispute over payments.
In part to counter such threats, International Monetary Fund officials are expected to meet EU finance ministers in Brussels next week to review preliminary results of their “needs assessment” in Kiev, which could pave the way for a decision on the size and shape of an aid programme as early as next week.
In an hour-long telephone call, the second conversation between the leaders in less than a week, Mr Obama said the situation could be resolved diplomatically in a way that “addresses the interests” of Russia and the people of Ukraine, according to the White House.
Mr Putin said bilateral relations should not be “sacrificed due to disagreements over individual, albeit extremely significant, international problems”, the Kremlin said.
Mr Obama said John Kerry, US secretary of state, would continue to push for direct talks between the Russian and Ukrainian governments.
It also emerged on Friday that a commercial flight carrying Mr Yatseniuk was intercepted at Vienna airport by Austrian special forces on Thursday night following warnings that it contained a possible terrorist threat.
On landing at Vienna Schwechat, the 17.30 flight from Brussels was escorted to a remote part of the airfield where it was surrounded by counter-terrorism troops. After a thorough search, no threat was discovered, a police spokesman said. All those on board, including the Ukrainian delegation, were able to continue their journeys as planned.
It was not clear where the warning originated.
In a sign of its willingness to engage with Russia, Ukraine announced it would participate in the Winter Paralympics, which open in the Russian city of Sochi on Friday.
Many foreign dignitaries have announced they are boycotting the sporting festival.
On Thursday, in the first concrete steps by the west to penalise Russia, the US issued visa bans on Russian officials and the EU agreed to sign key parts of the integration agreement with Kiev that was the touchstone of the crisis.
The EU’s move came after the parliament in Crimea brought forward to March 16 a referendum to decide whether to be part of Russia or remain in Ukraine but with much greater autonomy.
“We have seen a speeding up of the situation in the Crimea,” said Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. “We had to go further.”
Viktor Yanukovich has been ousted but Russia is flexing its military muscle, fearing a threat to its interests in Ukraine
The US visa bans are the first of a series of measures being developed by the Obama administration with possible future penalties including sanctions on Russian banks and asset freezes on its companies.
“We cannot let Russia violate the sovereignty of one of its neighbours with impunity,” said a senior administration official. Washington has suspended trade and military-to-military ties with Russia.
The EU decided to go slower on sanctions, agreeing only to suspend immediately talks on trade and visa liberalisation. However, EU diplomats said the mood at the summit had toughened, with leaders agreeing to impose asset freezes and visa bans if Russia does not agree to begin negotiations to withdraw from Crimea.
Vladimir Yakunin, a former senior diplomat and head of Russian Railways, said the US had for decades been intent on separating Ukraine from Russia. “We are witnessing a huge geopolitical game in which the aim is the destruction of Russia as a geopolitical opponent of the US or of this global financial oligarchy,” Mr Yakunin told the Financial Times.
The plebiscite in the ethnically Russian dominated region of Crimea had been initially scheduled for March 30, with one question: whether Crimea should be given more regional powers.
The moves by the US and EU came after western diplomats found themselves unable to persuade the Kremlin to begin talks over resolving the crisis. The events in Crimea appeared to galvanise an alliance that was showing signs of fraying, with eastern European countries denouncing German reticence.
Additional reporting by Jack Farchy in Moscow and Jeevan Vasagar in Berlin
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