DONESTSK: Ukraine’s embattled premier vowed to grant more power to the country’s regions in a bid to stamp out a separatist insurgency that sprang up just as a new Russian gas war threatened European supplies.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s promise during a visit to the coal mining region of Donetsk came as militants armed with Kalashnikovs barricaded themselves inside the local government building and demanded a referendum on joining Russia.
A similar occupation of the state security office of the hardscrabble eastern city of Lugansk has confronted Ukraine’s untested leaders with their biggest challenge since their February ouster of a Kremlin-backed president and decision to strike an alliance with the West.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin – his troops already massed along Ukraine’s eastern border following their seizure of Crimea – only upped the stakes by threatening to cut off Ukraine’s gas over unpaid bills.
“The issue is not about us. The issue is about securing transits through Ukraine,” Putin said on Friday.
The decision could limit the supplies of at least 18 European nations for the third time since 2006. Each of the previous interruptions also coincided with attempts by Ukraine to pull itself out of the Kremlin’s historic sphere of influence.
Putin’s warning came after Russia had already nearly doubled Ukraine’s energy price and demanded that its neighbour rewrite its constitution in order to give eastern regions the right to set their own economic and diplomatic relations with Moscow.
The Kremlin’s emphatic response to its possible loss of control over the nation of 46 million people has plunged its relations with the West to post-Cold War lows and forced NATO to step up the defence of former Soviet satellite states.
“We are not discussing military options,” NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Sofia.
“But NATO is focused on ensuring defence and protection of all our allies and we will take all steps necessary to make sure that this collective defence is effective.”