Putin and Poroshenko discuss possible Ukraine ceasefire

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko held talks on Tuesday over a possible ceasefire in Ukraine, as two members of a Russian television crew were killed in the ex-Soviet state’s separatist east.

Poroshenko assured Putin that an investigation would be launched into the deaths, and vowed to take necessary measures to protect reporters covering the conflict, the Kremlin said in a statement following the talks.

“The issue of a possible ceasefire in the area of a military operation in Ukraine’s southeast has been touched upon,” the Kremlin said.

Moscow had earlier responded furiously to the death of the TV crew members, accusing Kiev of a campaign of “terror” and demanding an investigation.

Kiev in turn blamed the explosion of a vital pipeline used to transport Siberian gas to Europe — which erupted in a spectacular fireball on Tuesday — on Russian “sabotage”.

Tensions between the neighbours hit new highs this week when Russia cut gas supplies to Ukraine in a pricing row.

The move was a further blow to Kiev, which is battling a teetering economy and a 10-week uprising by pro-Russian separatists in the east.

The Kremlin, which denies fomenting the unrest in the east, on Monday cut off gas supplies in a move Kiev called “another stage of Russia’s aggression against the Ukrainian state”.

Russia imposed the cut after Ukraine balked at making a $1.9 billion (1.4 billion euro) debt payment in protest at Moscow’s decision to nearly double Kiev’s rates in the wake of the February ouster of a Kremlin-backed president.

Weeks of acrimonious debt and price negotiations broke up on Monday, with Russia walking away from a compromise solution proposed in Kiev by the European Union’s energy commissioner.

Ukraine receives half its gas from Russia and transports 15 percent of the fuel consumed in Europe-a dependence that has not diminished despite similar supply disruptions in 2006 and 2009.

A gas shortage is not expected to be felt in either Ukraine or Europe for several months.

Ukraine has bolstered its underground storage volumes and analysts believe that Europe’s own reserves are nearly full.

Yet Kiev is seeking to devise a longer term solution that would eliminate a need to maintain an alliance with Russia to secure gas prices it can afford.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Tuesday that a team headed by Naftogaz state energy firm chief Andriy Kobolev and Energy Minister Yuriy Prodan was flying to Budapest to negotiate “reverse-flow” deliveries along pipelines now used for transporting Russian gas westward.

European utilities have for the most part refused to compromise their relations with Russia’s energy giant Gazprom by selling its own gas back to Ukraine at a price lower than that imposed on Kiev by Moscow.

European companies “do not have the right to do that,” Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller said.

But EU Energy Commission spokeswoman Sabine Berger said such “reverse-flow” deliveries were “legally perfectly sound”.

The gas cut has further exacerbated tensions with Kiev after Moscow’s March seizure of Crimea and move to mass troops on its border with Ukraine.