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Putin: Ukraine debt threatens Europe gas supplies

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Russian national flags fly above barricades with a road sign “Stop” with an Orthodox icon in front of an entrance of the Ukrainian regional office of the Security Service in Luhansk, 30 kilometers (20 miles) west of the Russian border, Ukraine, Thursday, April 10, 2014. Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said Wednesday that the standoff in Luhansk and the two neighboring Russian-leaning regions of Donetsk and Kharkiv must be resolved within two days. (AP Photo/Igor Golovniov)

Russian national flags fly above barricades with a road sign “Stop” with an Orthodox icon in front of an entrance of the Ukrainian regional office of the Security Service in Luhansk, 30 kilometers (20 miles) west of the Russian border, Ukraine, Thursday, April 10, 2014. Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said Wednesday that the standoff in Luhansk and the two neighboring Russian-leaning regions of Donetsk and Kharkiv must be resolved within two days. (AP Photo/Igor Golovniov)

A masked pro-Russian activist poses for a photo in front of barricades at the Ukrainian regional office of the Security Service in Luhansk, 30 kilometers (20 miles) west of the Russian border, in Ukraine, Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the standoff in Luhansk and the two neighboring Russian-leaning regions of Donetsk and Kharkiv must be resolved within two days.(AP Photo/Igor Golovniov)

A masked pro-Russian activist looks at a photographer as he rests next to barricades at the Ukrainian regional office of the Security Service in Luhansk, 30 kilometers (20 miles) west of the Russian border, in Ukraine, Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the standoff in Luhansk and the two neighboring Russian-leaning regions of Donetsk and Kharkiv must be resolved within two days. (AP Photo/Igor Golovniov)

A pro-Russian activist looks through a broken window of the Ukrainian regional office of the Security Service decorated by Russian and Donetsk region’s flags and a small poster reading “We are for president Volodya (Vladimir Putin) ” in Luhansk, 30 kilometers (20 miles) west of the Russian border, in Ukraine, Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the standoff in Luhansk and the two neighboring Russian-leaning regions of Donetsk and Kharkiv must be resolved within two days.(AP Photo/Igor Golovniov)

Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during a meeting with the People’s Front activists at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on Thursday, April 10, 2014. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti Kremlin, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)

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MOSCOW (AP) — Vladimir Putin warned Europe on Thursday that it may face a shutdown of Russian natural gas supplies if it fails to help Ukraine settle its enormous Russian gas bill — a debt that far exceeds a bailout package offered by the International Monetary Fund.

The Russian president’s letter to 18 mostly Eastern European leaders, released Thursday by the Kremlin, aimed to divide the 28-nation European Union and siphon off to Russia the billions that the international community plans to lend to Ukraine. It was all part of Russia’s efforts to retain control over its struggling neighbor, which is teetering on the verge of financial ruin and facing a pro-Russian separatist mutiny in the east.

Putin’s message is clear: The EU has tried to lure Ukraine from Russia’s orbit and into its fold, so it should now foot Ukraine’s gas bill — or face the country’s economic collapse and a disruption of its own gas supplies.

The tough warning raises the ante ahead of international talks on settling the Ukrainian crisis that for the first time will bring together the United States, the European Union, Russia and Ukraine.

Hundreds of pro-Russian protesters — some armed — were still occupying Ukrainian government buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk while authorities sought a peaceful solution Thursday to the five-day standoff. And in northwest Romania, U.S. and Romanian forces kicked off a week of joint military exercises.

The amount that Putin claims Ukraine owes is growing by billions every week — and his letter raises the specter of a new gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine that could affect much of Europe. In 2009, Moscow turned off gas supplies to Kiev in the dead of winter, leading to freezing cities across Eastern Europe as Russian gas stopped moving through Ukrainian pipelines to other nations.

In the letter, Putin said Ukraine owes Russia $17 billion due to the termination of gas discounts and potentially another $18.4 billion as a take-or-pay fine under their 2009 gas contract. He added that on top of that $35.4 billion, Russia also holds $3 billion in Ukrainian government bonds.

The total amount is far greater than the estimated $14 billion to $18 billion bailout that the International Monetary Fund is considering for Ukraine.

Putin warned that Ukraine’s mounting debt is forcing Moscow to demand advance payments for further gas supplies. He said that if Ukraine failed to make such payments, Russia’s state-controlled gas giant Gazprom will “completely or partially cease gas deliveries.”

Putin told the leaders that a shutdown of Russian gas supplies will increase the risk of Ukraine siphoning off gas intended for the rest of Europe and will make it difficult to accumulate sufficient reserves to guarantee uninterrupted delivery to European customers next winter. He urged quick talks between Russia and European consumers of Russian gas.

“The fact that our European partners have unilaterally withdrawn from the concerted efforts to resolve the Ukrainian crisis, and even from holding consultations with the Russian side, leaves Russia no alternative,” Putin said.

The letter was addressed to 18 heads of states in Europe, including Serbia and Bulgaria, which both rely on Russia for about 90 percent of their gas supplies.

Putin has been tightening the economic screws on the cash-strapped Kiev government since it came to power in February after Ukraine’s Russia-leaning president fled the country after months of protest.

Starting this month, Russia state energy giant Gazprom scrapped all discounts on gas to Ukraine, meaning a 70 percent price hike that will add

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