NATO continues to support Ukraine with military equipment against pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk.
Ukrainian troops on Monday were battling a Russian tank contingent in the eastern city of Lugansk, Kiev said, accusing Moscow’s army units of moving into large cities in the region.
Hungary’s gas pipeline operator, FGSZ, says it has suspended delivery of gas to neighbouring Ukraine “indefinitely”.
Ukraine has been receiving gas from Hungary, Poland and Slovakia since Russia cut off supplies to Ukraine in June in a dispute over unpaid bills.
Ukrainian state gas firm Naftogaz confirmed the stoppage, saying it was “unexpected and unexplained”.
FGSZ said it had acted to raise the flow of gas to Hungary, due to an expected increase in demand.
With winter approaching fears are mounting that Ukraine will be unable to heat homes and power industry without Russian gas.
Russian and Ukrainian energy ministers are meeting in Berlin for EU-brokered talks, aimed at heading off such a crisis.
Relations between the former USSR’s two most populous countries soured after the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, in February.
Russia subsequently annexed the Crimea region from Ukraine and was accused of fomenting a bloody insurrection in two of its eastern provinces.
Earlier this year Gazprom and Russian President Vladimir Putin warned of consequences if EU member states went ahead with deliveries to Ukraine to replace Russian supplies.
Russia says EU states are contractually forbidden from re-exporting gas to Ukraine while Brussels insists that such “reverse flows” are legal.
Hungary’s move came three days after a meeting in Budapest between the head of Russian gas giant Gazprom, Alexei Miller, and Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban.
Prime Minister Orban has been critical of EU sanctions on Russia and has maintained a closer relationship with Moscow than his western European neighbours.
Gazprom agreed on Friday to boost supplies to Hungary, Reuters news agency reports.
“Hungary cannot get into a situation in which, due to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, it cannot access its required supply of energy,” Mr Orban said on Hungarian state radio.
European Commission spokeswoman Helen Kearns said on Friday: “The message from the Commission is very clear: we expect all member states to facilitate reverse flows as agreed by the European Council
“There is nothing preventing EU companies to dispose freely of gas they have purchased from Gazprom and this includes selling this gas to customers both within the EU as well as to third countries such as Ukraine.”
Naftogaz urged its “Hungarian partners to respect their contractual obligations and EU legislation”.
“Neither EU countries nor Ukraine should be put under political pressure through energy blackmail,” Naftogaz said on its website.
It is hoped that Friday’s talks will establish a basis for an interim deal over energy.
The deal could involve the EU buying enough Russian gas to safeguard Ukrainian and European supplies during the winter months, at roughly market prices, according to Reuters.
However, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak insisted in an interview published on Friday that re-exporting Russian gas to Ukraine is illegal and could lead to some EU states going without fuel shipments from Gazprom.
“We hope that our European partners will stick to the agreements,” he told Germany’s business daily Handelsblatt (in German).
“That is the only way to ensure there are no interruptions in gas deliveries to European consumers,” he said.
In June, Russia cut off all gas supplies to Ukraine after Kiev failed to settle its debt with Gazprom.
Gazprom had sought $1.95bn (£1.15bn) out of a total claim of $4.5bn.
The Russia company said Ukraine had to pay upfront for its future supplies.
The issue of gas supply has dogged relations between Russia and Ukraine since the break-up of the USSR, with Russia seeking new export routes for its gas which would bypass Ukraine. EU supplies have been hit twice in the past decade because of the dispute.
The Kremlin has been accused of using Russia’s leverage as a major gas supplier for political ends in its international relations.
As Putin pushes Ukraine to bend to his will and allow greater independence to Russian-backed separatists in the country’s southeast, the Russian president holds a trump card: Winter is coming.
“I think that nobody thinks of [winter] anymore, except Russia,” Putin said on Sunday, according to The New York Times. “There are ways of helping resolve the issue. First, to immediately stop hostilities and start restoring the necessary infrastructure. To start replenishing reserves, conducting the necessary repair operations and preparing for the cold season.”
Geysar Gurbanov, a Rotary international world peace fellow currently at Harvard, recently explained the leverage that Putin has over Ukraine as the temperature drops.
“According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, [Ukraine’s] primary energy consumption is fueled by natural gas (40%) and coal (28%),” Gurbanov writes in The Duke Chronicle. “With winter coming to Ukraine in less than four months and the coal mines located in the easternmost part of the country ravaged by conflict, Ukrainians will freeze in their homes as their gas supplies from Russia are depleted. Therefore, if the rebels fail to achieve their goal, Gazprom, Russia’s energy giant, will help Putin to win the war eventually.”
So Putin’s remark could be interpreted as a veiled threat signaling that if Ukraine’s army doesn’t back down against the separatists (and embedded Russian soldiers), then Moscow will use gas as a weapon.
In 2013, Russian gas accounted for half of the total gas consumed in Ukraine. On June 16, Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine over unpaid bills. Earlier this month, Gazprom said that Ukraine’s outstanding debt for gas supplies stood at $5.3 billion as of Aug. 1.
Russia has already said that Ukraine would have to prepay for future gas shipments unless Kiev begins payments on accumulated debts.
The EU is currently trying to broker a deal that would allow shipments to resume temporarily.
In any case, Putin has the upper hand as Ukraine’s gas reserves run out as winter sets in.
“Can Ukraine now survive without Russian gas? No, it can’t,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said earlier this month, according to RIA Novosti. “How much Russian gas do we need to buy? About 5 billion cubic meters.”
A little-known place that interests both Ukraine and Russia
The isolated region of Ukrainian Bessarabia, which is also known as Budjak, has become one of the latest places for Ukraine-watchers to worry about. Many of the inhabitants fear a spread of the war from eastern Ukraine. Geography gives their region great strategic importance, especially if the Russians were ever tempted to try to carve a land corridor across to Crimea, Odessa and the Romanian border.
Ukrainian Bessarabia is bounded by the Black Sea, the Danube and Moldova. The Russian-controlled breakaway region of Transdniestria is to the north. There are no roads, bridges or ferries across the Danube to Romania and only two roads connect the region to the rest of Ukraine. If the bridges over the Dniester were blown up, it would be cut off.
Fewer than half of the region’s 570,000 people are Ukrainian. The rest are Bulgarians, Russians, Moldovans, Gagauz or Albanians. Many have a benign view of Russia, which gave their ancestors land and freedom 200 years ago. Almost everyone speaks Russian and many complain that Ukraine has done little for them. Ivan Rusev, a local ecologist, tracks illegal buildings in the Dniester Delta National Park. This was a problem before Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, he says, but it is worse now.
The result is a contradiction. For pro-Ukrainians such as Mr Rusev, too many fellow Bessarabians hope vaguely that “Putin will solve all their problems.” Few have any faith in the government in Kiev. Yet according to Anton Kisse, a local politician, at the same time as many feel sympathy for Russia, they also favour Ukraine’s unity. Sergey Dibrov, a journalist in Odessa, believes that, given the region’s ethnic make-up, any declaration of independence would see the region splinter into bits.
In the autumn there were rumours of plots to proclaim a pro-Russian Bessarabian People’s Republic, along the lines of the separatist republics in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Possible leaders included former Soviet army officers living in Bolgrad, which is mostly ethnic Bulgarian. Yet war in the east has dampened enthusiasm for separatism. A tragedy last May which saw dozens of pro-Russian activists killed in a fire in Odessa has also chilled any desire for revolt against Kiev. Pro-Russian leaders have fled and opportunistic politicians have shifted towards supporting the unity of Ukraine.
The question is what Russia wants. State power has changed hands nine times in Bessarabia in just over 200 years. Locals report seeing drones, some perhaps from Transdniestria and some that may have come from ships of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, based in Sebastopol. Even so, Ukraine’s flag looks likely to fly over Bessarabia for some time to come.
Ukrainian border guards detained a soldier suspected of being a Russian army officer who was picked up while riding in a military truck packed with ammunition at the Berezove checkpoint, about 28 miles southwest of the militant-held city of Donetsk.
Guards found nearly 200 cases containing grenades and ammunition, including rocket-propelled shells, inside the military truck.
“He (the Russian officer) had no documents. But he admitted that he was a chief of an RAO (rocket-artillery weapons unit). He is responsible for ammunition supply.
He said that while delivering the ammunition they had got lost,” Oleksandr Tomchyshyn, a border-guards spokesman said. Another man who was detained identified himself as a pro-Russian separatist fighter.
If he is confirmed as a Russian soldier, Ukraine is likely to use the case to bolster its charges that Russia is continuing direct involvement in the 15-month-long conflict and failing to honor a peace agreement worked out in Minsk, Belarus, in February.
Meanwhile, Ukraine and Western countries contend that Russia is providing troops and weaponry to pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Since April 2014, at least 6,400 people have been killed in the region while Russia continues to deny such allegations, the Associated Press reports.
A spokesman said the two men may have taken a wrong direction and driven toward Ukrainian forces manning a checkpoint southwest of the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk by mistake.
“We can assume that they took a wrong direction while driving, got lost, and came on our checkpoint,” military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanuk told a briefing.
The two men wore military uniforms without insignia and carried no identity documents, he said.
In the face of what Kiev and Western governments say is undeniable proof, Moscow denies its regular forces are engaged actively in the conflict on behalf of the separatists.
Though a fragile ceasefire seems to be holding, thousands of people have been killed in the conflict in Ukraine’s industrialized Russian-speaking east.
Ukraine is still holding two Russian soldiers who were captured in May and have been charged with terrorism. Russia says the two men had quit their special-forces unit to go to Ukraine on their own.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has warned that Ukraine could disappear from the map of Europe as Yugoslavia did, if Kiev does not “show some flexibility” and grant more autonomy to the territories in the east held by pro-Russian separatists.
Six countries currently on the map of Europe were once members of the Serb-led communist Yugoslav Federation before the Yugoslav wars in 1992, while Kosovo declared its independence from the territory of Serbia in 2008.
Ironically Russia has backed Serbia in not recognizing Kosovo’s independence and blocking a U.N. resolution recognizing the organised killing of ethnic Bosniaks by Bosnian Serb forces as “a crime of genocide”.
Speaking to Slovenian broadcaster RTV Slovenija ahead of his visit to the country, a former Yugoslav republic, Medvedev compared the conflict between pro-Russian forces in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions to Yugoslavia. The interview transcript was published on the Russian government’s website.
“Let us ask, for example, the Russian youth if they remember a country such as Yugoslavia? I think most young people would already be struggling to recall that this country was ever on the map of Europe,” Medvedev said. “It was a very difficult, harsh, painful and, unfortunately, unpeaceful process. Why am I reminding you of this? Because, when we are told that it is necessary to respect international obligations, it is something we completely agree with… but this approach must be applied to all states, in all situations.”
The early 1990s saw the Yugoslav conflict reach the height of its violence, specifically in Bosnia and Croatia where around 110,000 and 20,000 respectively have been reported killed.
Other states seceded more peacefully, most notably Montenegro which parted from Serbia in 2006 after a referendum agreed by both sides. Slovenia’s own war of independence lasted 10 days, during which around 100 people were killed.
“I am reminiscing about Yugoslavia, only because I hope that at some point in the future we will not have to remember the country which used to be called Ukraine in the same way,” Medvedev added. “The existence of Ukraine at the present moment depends on the wisdom, patience, tact, willingness to compromise and the desire to speak to everyone who makes decisions on the territory of Ukraine.”