MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened Wednesday to start charging Ukraine in advance for vital gas supplies — a move that could sharply hurt his neighbor, which is already on the verge of bankruptcy.
It was just the latest way Moscow is putting pressure on Ukraine since its pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power in February after months of street protests.
Meanwhile, NATO's top military commander in Europe told The Associated Press that countermoves to the Russian military threat against Ukraine could include sending American troops to alliance nations in Eastern Europe feeling at risk.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove told the Associated Press on Wednesday that he wouldn't "write off involvement by any nation, to include the United States."
"Essentially what we are looking at is a package of land, air and maritime measures that would build assurance for our easternmost allies," he said.
Putin, who was chairing a meeting with government ministers in his suburban residence outside Moscow, Putin said asking for advance gas payments "corresponded with the contract" between Ukraine and Russia. Still, he suggested that the state energy giant Gazprom to refrain from such drastic measures until "additional consultations" between both sides.
Russia has already eliminated a gas discount it had given Ukraine, arguing that it was tied to a lease for Russia's Black Sea Fleet base in Crimea, a Ukrainian region that Russia annexed last month. And Ukraine has promised the International Monetary Fund that it will cut energy subsidies to residents in exchange for a bailout loan of up to $14 billion — so gas prices were set to rise 50 percent on May 1 even before the latest salvo from Putin.
Speaking in Kiev earlier, Ukrainian Energy Minister Yuri Prodan said Ukraine will pay for March deliveries of gas from Russia only after it reaches an agreement on the price. He rejected the new, much higher price that Gazprom announced earlier and said Ukraine has not pumped in any gas from Russia so far this month.