Russian President Vladimir Putin was to meet his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yushchenko yesterday, the Kremlin said, amid crunch talks aimed at averting a cut in Russian gas supplies to the neighboring state.
The pro-Western Ukrainian leader was to meet Putin in the Kremlin as Russia's Gazprom energy giant extended a deadline until 6pm, after which a threatened gas cut-off could kick in.
Russian state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta noted that meetings between Putin and the leader of ex-Soviet Ukraine had become a rarity and said "the number of unresolved issues and touchy subjects in bilateral relations has only grown."
Gazprom has threatened to end supplies of Russian gas to Ukraine if Kiev misses the deadline for paying a debt claimed by Moscow of US$1.5 billion.
The dispute echoes a pricing row in 2006 that led to gas supply disruptions across Europe after Gazprom cut supplies to Ukraine, a transit route to the EU.
This time Gazprom has said deliveries to the EU will not be disrupted.
Ukraine's economy, dominated by heavy industry, is highly dependent on imports of gas from Russia. However, about 75 percent of this gas is extracted in the Central Asian state of Turkmenistan and transported across Russian territory.
The threatened cut-off applies to the Russian portion of the total, Gazprom has said.
The size of the Ukrainian debt is disputed by Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
She has tied payment of the debt to her desire to simplify the murky system of intermediaries by which Ukraine pays for its Russian and Turkmen gas, a system inherited from an earlier Ukrainian government.
Russian newspapers portrayed Tymoshenko as the villain of the dispute and suggested that Yushchenko was taking a more conciliatory role.
"Tymoshenko loudly promises to break off all contracts and raise transit fees. Yushchenko, who understands what that means for his country, tries to calm everyone down," the Izvestia daily said.
The Vremya Novostei newspaper said: "Yushchenko ... for the past few days has been trying to stop Tymoshenko in her intent to destroy gas ties between the two countries."
But Rossiyskaya Gazeta said Yushchenko and Putin were also sure to discuss the fraught issue of Ukraine's aim of joining the NATO military alliance, something vehemently opposed by Moscow.
Tensions around this issue have grown as Kiev hopes NATO will approve a Membership Action Plan for Ukraine -- a formal step towards membership -- at a summit on April 2 to April 4.
Russian papers noted Ukraine had acquired a bargaining chip in relations with Moscow by receiving an invitation to join the WTO.
Ukrainian membership will give Kiev influence over Moscow's own painfully drawn-out negotiations to join the global trade club, Rossiyskaya Gazeta said.