Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine Thursday of sending weapons and military personnel to help Georgia in its war with Russia.
The accusation came as Russia announced a memorandum of understanding for handling natural gas sales to Ukraine after Putin met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is in a political fight with her nation's pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko.
The timing of Russia's statements underlined Moscow's drive to increase its leverage in the neighboring former Soviet republic of Ukraine.
Without referring to Ukraine's president by name, Putin suggested Yushchenko authorized weapons supplies to Georgia before and during Russia's war there in August. He also alleged that Ukrainian military personnel fought on Georgia's side in the conflict.
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“When people and military systems are used to kill Russian soldiers, it's a crime,” Putin told reporters after meeting with Tymoshenko 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 anti-aircraft missiles supplied by Ukraine shot down four Russian warplanes in the conflict.
Putin said arms sales may have continued after the war began, and he charged that some weapons were operated by Ukrainians in the fighting.
“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 will probe allegations of arms sales. She said under Ukrainian law, the president and his Security Council are in charge of arms sales abroad and her Cabinet has no say.
Russia's use of force in Georgia has deepened nervousness among Ukrainians about their larger neighbor, whose leaders vehemently oppose Yushchenko's efforts to bring Ukraine into NATO. The Kremlin has warned NATO against granting membership to Ukraine or Georgia.
Moscow could use the price for its natural gas as a bargaining chip in its effort to stem Ukraine's strengthening of ties with the West. The gas cooperation memorandum signed Thursday leaves ample room for wrangling over prices in actual contracts. But Tymoshenko said she won a Russian commitment that prices would rise only gradually.