KIEV, Ukraine — Russia will lend Ukraine $15 billion and cut the price of gas by a third, President Vladimir Putin said Monday, helping the country stave off economic disaster and empowering its embattled president against massive anti-government protests.
The deal is part of a years-long Russian attempt to retain its economic influence over Ukraine and prevent it from moving towards the European Union, though Putin said he and his counterpart, Viktor Yanukovych, did not discuss Ukraine joining a rival Moscow-backed customs union.
“I want to draw your attention to the fact that this is not tied to any conditions,” Putin said at a press conference in Moscow, broadcast live on Russian state television. “I want to calm you down — we did not discuss the issue of Ukraine’s accession to the customs union at all today.”
Yanukovych has been in desperate need of a lifeline since his decision to renege on a deal with the EU under Russian economic pressure in late November sparked the biggest protests in Kiev since the 2004 Orange Revolution. Ukraine is the third-most likely country to default on its debt in the world; some analysts gave it as little as six weeks to hold on before the deal was announced.
The deal, rumors of which swirled around Moscow and Kiev for the past several days, is seen as a gift from Putin to allow Yanukovych to see out the protests. It may, however, reignite accusations of selling Ukraine out to Russia that sparked the protests against him in the first place, even without a deal to join the customs union. Opposition leaders are calling for Ukrainians to gather on Kiev’s Independence Square, the Maidan, on Tuesday evening to protest the deal.
Ukraine’s state-owned energy company Naftogaz will buy natural gas from Russia’s state energy behemoth Gazprom at $268.50 per cubic meter instead of the $400 it currently pays. Putin said the gas deal was “temporary” and added that “long-term agreements must and will be reached.”
Russia supplies Ukraine with about 60 percent of its energy needs and has used gas as a political lever against Ukraine’s government. Disputes in 2006 and 2009, when Ukraine was under a more Western-friendly government, saw Gazprom cut off the gas supply, plunging Ukraine into cold and darkness in the depths of winter.