Ukraine and Russia have signaled there could be progress in settling a festering row over gas supplies after three meetings between the nations in the space of ten hours.
The meetings between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko in Milan on Friday, the first since the two sides agreed a ceasefire in Crimea last September, raised hopes of an EU-backed resolution of the broader conflict embroiling the Soviet-era allies.
Any optimism, however, was tentative, as both leaders drew the line at saying an agreement had been formalized.
“We have some certain progress (on the gas issue) but left some details which need to be discussed,” Poroshenko said after the final meeting, which was the first time the two men had met alone since August last year.
He added that he hoped a deal could be done at or before already-scheduled talks in Brussels next week.
“Before October 21, we hope to find a solution for the energy question,” he said.
In a press conference on Friday, Putin confirmed conditions for a deal had been reached that would mean Russia continued to supply Ukraine with gas “at least for the winter” but said the EU and EC “could and should” help Ukraine meet its financial obligations to Russia in paying for the gas supplies.
French President Francois Hollande had earlier described a gas deal as “within reach,” after a meeting attended by himself, Putin, Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
EU-brokered talks with Ukraine and Russia have produced a draft accord whereby cash-strapped Kiev would pay $3.1 billion (2.4 bn euros) in unpaid bills to Moscow by the end of October, with a new contract to cover subsequent deliveries.
Putin threatened earlier this week to cut supplies completely if no agreement was reached.
On the issue of a ceasefire in the wider conflict, Putin reiterated previous statements that Russia is “not party to this conflict”.
The Russian president said that the situation in Ukraine could only be resolved by relying on agreements reached earlier this year in Minsk.
“These agreements are unfortunately not being observed by either party: neither the representatives of the militia nor Ukrainian representatives are so far fully observing these agreements,” he said.
“I presume that all parties will try to make sure that these agreements are fulfilled,” he said.
The ceasefire agreement, reached on September 5 in the Belarusian capital between representatives from Kiev and members of Ukraine’s pro-Russia supporters, was a nine-point deal that included establishing a buffer zone, and a prisoner exchange between the two sides.
Russia accounts for around one third of the EU’s consumption, half of which transits via Ukraine, and previous disruptions, in 2006 and 2009, led to sharp spikes in prices.