MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin has told European leaders a dispute over Ukraine's gas debt to Russia could affect supplies of Russian gas to Europe and proposed urgent discussions on the matter, his spokesman said on Thursday.
The remarks were the strongest sign yet that Russia could curtail supplies of gas to Ukraine, which could increase tension between Moscow and Kiev and aggravate the worst crisis in East-West ties since the Cold War.
"The situation is urgent," Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said after Putin sent a letter expressing deep concern about Ukraine's $2.2 billion gas debt and warning of a possible impact on the transit of Russian gas to the European Union.
In the letter, Putin proposed "mechanisms of dialogue for urgent discussions of the situation that has developed," Peskov said. He did not give any details about the proposal or say which leaders were addressed.
Russia has nearly doubled the price it charges Ukraine for gas since the ouster in February of President Viktor Yanukovich, who had pleased Putin by spurning landmark trade and political deals with the EU in favour of closer Russia ties.
State-controlled gas producer Gazprom stopped pumping gas to Ukraine during price disputes in the winters of 2005-2006 and 2008-2009, leading to reduced supplies in European countries that receive Russian gas via pipelines that cross Ukraine.
Gazprom has warned it could demand advance payments from Kiev for gas and deliver only what is paid for. Putin said on Wednesday that the company should hold off on that measure for the time being but suggested he wanted talks with the EU.
(Reportuing by Alexei Anishchuk,; Writing by Steve Gutterman, Editing by Timothy Heritage)