NOVO-OGARYOVO, Russia – Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia has angrily accused Ukraine of sending weapons and military personnel to help Georgia fight its war with Russia.
The outcome of Putin's talks with Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on that and other issues signaled an effort by Moscow to increase its leverage over Ukrainian politics amid persistent turmoil in the ex-Soviet republic.
Without naming Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Putin suggested Thursday he authorized weapons supplies to Georgia before and during Russia's war there in August. He also alleged that Ukrainian military personnel fought on the Georgian side in the conflict.
"When people and military systems are used to kill Russian soldiers, it's a crime," Putin told reporters after hours of talks with Tymoshenko — Yushchenko's political rival — at his residence outside Moscow. "Only a few years ago, it could not even come to mind, even in a nightmare, that Russians and Ukrainians would be fighting each other. But that happened, and it is a crime."
Russian officials and some Ukrainian lawmakers have said Ukraine helped arm pro-Western Georgia before the war. The Russian military has said that anti-aircraft missiles supplied by Ukraine shot down four Russian warplanes during the conflict.
Putin said arms sales may have continued after the war began, and that some weapons were operated by Ukrainians.
"The weapons could have been supplied during the military action, and it was operated by Ukrainian specialists," Putin said. "That is a crime. That's an attempt to set Russian and Ukrainian people against each other."
Tymoshenko, who is vying for power with Yushchenko, said a parliamentary panel in Ukraine would investigate allegations of arms sales. She said that under Ukrainian law the president and his Security Council are in charge of arms sales abroad and her Cabinet has no say.
Russia and Ukraine signed a memorandum of cooperation over natural gas. The document only set guidelines, leaving ample room for wrangling over prices in actual contracts, but Tymoshenko said she won a Russian commitment to increase the rate its monopoly Gazprom charges Ukraine only gradually.
"The parties confirmed their desire to gradually move to free-market prices over the next three years," Tymoshenko said. "We have reached an agreement that our countries don't need shock therapy."
She also said Gazprom and Ukraine's gas company will deal directly with each other starting next year, eliminating the intermediaries she has crusaded to remove from Russian-Ukrainian gas trade.
Tymoshenko has been critical of Russia in the past, and last year suggested that the West should seek to thwart Moscow's ambitions to regain influence over countries that were once part of its empire.
But now, locked in a power struggle with Yushchenko, she has increasingly talked about the need to improve ties with Russia.
"For Ukraine, Russia is an absolute strategic partner," Tymoshenko said as she sat down with Putin. "We are very much interested in our relations being friendly and mutually beneficial."
Yushchenko has accused Tymoshenko of currying favor with Russia at the expense of Ukraine's interests.
Putin dismissed allegations of Kremlin support for Tymoshenko in her rivalry with Yushchenko as "ridiculous" and said Moscow wants to see political stability in Ukraine. The West accused Putin's government of meddling in Ukraine's 2004 presidential election, which was eventually won by Yushchenko.
Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, allies during the Orange Revolution that propelled the pro-Western Yushchenko to victory in 2004, have feuded bitterly since, and the governing coalition of their political parties collapsed last month, raising the prospect of new elections.
Tymoshenko on Thursday spoke strongly against Yushchenko's warning that he would disband parliament and call new elections if a new coalition is not formed.
"We must try to prevent chaos linked with early elections," Tymoshenko said. She voiced hope that a coalition could be formed but scathingly attacked Yushchenko, accusing him of dirty politics.
Tymoshenko said Wednesday that she would accept demands Yushchenko's camp has made in a bid to restore their shattered coalition, including taking a tougher stance on Russia's conduct in Georgia. But she trod softly on the issue with Putin.
"We have seen a very difficult development in Georgia," she said. "We would like to see a peaceful settlement of the conflict. We want to see peace prevail, and I'm sure you want the same."
Russia's use of force in the ex-Soviet republic has deepened nervousness in Ukraine about its larger neighbor, which vehemently opposes Yushchenko's efforts to bring Ukraine into NATO.
Russia has also reacted angrily to Ukraine's intention to evict the Russian navy from a base in Crimea after the current lease ends in 2017. Moscow could use gas prices as a bargaining chip in its efforts to stem Ukraine's movement Westward.