President Vladimir Putin has said that Russian gas supplies to Europe via Ukraine may continue even after the launch of a prospective Germany-bound pipeline under the Baltic Sea.
The question of whether Ukraine would be frozen out of future Russian gas deliveries is seen as one of the main stumbling blocks for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project through the Baltic Sea.
Several European countries object to the plan, including Ukraine, and the US has warned that it could endanger Europe’s energy security.
Speaking after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Russian city of Sochi, Mr Putin said Russia has no intention of halting supplies of gas to EU nations across Ukraine’s territory after the launch of Nord Stream 2.
He said supplies via Ukraine, which relies heavily on transit fees for gas, will continue if they are economically expedient.
“We are ready to preserve such transit if it makes sense economically,” he said. “It can be achieved in talks with the Ukrainian side, and we are ready for such talks.”
Mr Putin suggested US opposition to Nord Stream 2 stems from President Donald Trump’s desire to encourage exports of the US liquefied natural gas, which is supplied by ship and is considerably more expensive than Russian supplies.
Mrs Merkel emphasised the need to provide Ukraine with guarantees that supplies via its territory will continue.
Germany wants Russia’s gas and has calculated that the new pipeline will provide better value for money than other options, including the US natural gas.
The meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi is Mrs Merkel’s first visit to Russia in a year and comes amid tense relations between Berlin and Moscow.
Germany has condemned Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and its military support for the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but as she starts her fourth term, Mrs Merkel is reaching out to Mr Putin in an effort to make progress on these long-running crises.
Germany insists a UN peacekeeping force should help facilitate next year’s elections in Ukraine.
Moscow, which backs the separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, has indicated it could agree to their presence but baulked at Ukraine’s demand to allow their deployment alongside the Russia-Ukraine border.
On Syria, Mr Putin said European humanitarian assistance to Syria and help in rebuilding the country after the devastating civil war is crucial in creating conditions for the refugees’ return from Europe.
He said that providing aid for Syria must be “depoliticised”, a statement addressing the Western reluctance to provide assistance to Assad’s government.
“If Europe wants people to return to their homes, it needs to help Syria rebuild its economy and provide Syria with humanitarian assistance,” Mr Putin said.
Mrs Merkel urged him to use his clout with Assad to make him reverse a law that would strip Syrians of their assets if they fail to claim them right away.
“This is very bad news for all of those who want to return to Syria one day,” she said.