, KIEV, Jun 8 – Ukraine’s new Western-backed President Petro Poroshenko got down Sunday to the Herculean task of pacifying a deadly pro-Kremlin insurgency and averting a devastating Russian gas cut.
The 48 year old candy magnate dubbed the “chocolate king” delivered a forceful inauguration address Saturday in which he vowed to never accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea and pursue Ukraine’s new pro-European course.
And he flatly rejected dialogue with “gangsters and killers” who have declared independence in two heavily Russified eastern regions and are waging a bloody campaign against Ukrainian forces that Kiev and the West accuse the Kremlin of choreographing.
Europe’s worst security crisis in decades has now plunged East-West relations into a Cold War-style standoff and left the ex-Soviet country of 46 million facing disintegration and economic collapse.
But a sudden chink in the diplomatic ice emerged Friday when Russian President Vladimir Putin nudged by German Chancellor Angela Merkel shook hands with Poroshenko on the sidelines of D-Day commemorations in Normandy and conducted what he described as a “very positive” exchange of views.
Putin followed that up Saturday by bowing to US pressure and demanding extra protection of Russia’s western border in order to stem the flow of militants and weapons into Ukraine.
The seeming shift in Putin’s aggressive approach prompted Poroshenko to suggest that he might receive a top Russian envoy Sunday for talks aimed at calming the eight-week insurgency and mending the neighbour’s ties.
But the Kremlin refused to confirm the meeting and no Moscow negotiator was known to have arrived in Kiev by Sunday afternoon.
Ukraine won a vital reprieve last week when Russia pushed back until Tuesday an ultimatum for Kiev to make billions in dollars in overdue payments or see its fuel supplies cut.
The debt had been incurred by Kiev for months due to two decades of economic mismanagement that last year saw Ukraine slip into its second recession since 2009.
But Moscow demanded immediate payment after stripping Ukraine of price discounts it had awarded the ousted pro-Kremlin regime a decision denounced by the new Kiev leaders as a form of “economic aggression”.
Ukrainian transits of Russian gas supply about 15 percent of European needs despite efforts to reduce that dependence following similar interruptions in 2006 and 2009.
And a top EU envoy is now urgently seeking a compromise that could save 18 member states from seeing their deliveries start dwindling this week.
The Russian energy ministry said that the final round of EU-mediated talks will be held Monday evening in Brussels.
Russia’s March seizure of Crimea set off a wave of nationalistic fervour that saw Putin’s approval rating hit 80 percent.
But the threat of further economic sanctions and a stampede by Western investors from Russia have also drawn questions about the long-term costs of Putin’s combative stance.
“With his Ukrainian escapade, Vladimir Putin embroiled the entire country in a reckless geopolitical game, making the Russian people hostage to his own ambitions,” former Russian prime minister and heavy Putin critic Mikhail Kasyanov wrote in a blog post.
“The game is over, and Putin’s primary job now is to minimise his political losses and save face.”
Recent studies conducted in Ukraine’s eastern rustbelt also show a majority opposing independence or an outright merger with Russia.
Poroshenko was the top vote getter in the restless Donetsk and Lugansk districts despite his vow to use force if necessary to keep Ukraine whole.
“As strange as it may seem, it is these very imperialistic ambitions of Putin that made the people of Ukraine start to increasingly demonstrate the unity of a hardened nation,” respected military analyst Valentyn Badrak wrote in Kiev’s Dzerkalo Tyzhnia weekly.
He added that Poroshenko’s promise to quickly crush the insurgency may only further weaken Putin’s hand.
“One theory says that the Kremlin leader’s compliance directly depends on Kiev’s military success,” Tyzhnia wrote.