Bruseels: The European Union told Russian President Vladimir Putin it is willing to hold talks with Moscow and Kiev on gas security as the bloc scrambles to defuse a deep political crisis over Russia's annexation of Crimea.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, replying to a letter Putin sent last week to 18 EU countries, accepted Putin's proposal for three-way talks.
"The European Union agrees on your proposal for consultations with the Russian Federation and Ukraine with regard to security of gas supply and transit," Barroso said in his reply, released by the European Commission on Thursday.
Putin warned EU leaders a week ago that Russia would cut natural gas supplies to Ukraine if it did not pay its more than $2 billion gas debt and said this could lead to a reduction of onward deliveries to Europe.
The EU has voiced outrage over Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and is extremely nervous about the energy implications of the conflict as Ukraine is a major transit route for Russian gas.
Russia provides Europe with roughly one-third of its gas imports, some 40 per cent of which flow via Ukraine. Russia also provides Ukraine with around half of its domestic gas needs.
Putin said Russia had been assisting Ukraine with cut-price gas for years and blamed Ukraine's economic and political crisis on the EU.
Barroso hit back at that criticism and said the European Union, as part of an International Monetary Fund aid package, was already providing support to Ukraine. Ukraine's gas debts and import prices should be considered as part of that, he said.
Barroso reiterated his call on Russia to respect contractual commitments on gas supplies.
"I would like to recall that supply contracts are between European companies and Gazprom. It, therefore, continues to be Gazprom's responsibility to ensure the deliveries of the required volumes as agreed in the supply contracts," he wrote.
Barroso reminded Russia it had a duty to warn Europe before taking "any unilateral steps" in a reference to an early warning system set up between the EU and Russia in response to previous gas supply crises due to price spats between Russia and Ukraine.