Moscow: Russia is now a "strategic problem" for the EU amid the crisis in Ukraine, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said Thursday, but he insisted Brussels would not be blackmailed by the cancellation of a huge gas pipeline.
Juncker said that the huge South Stream gas pipeline to Europe could still be built, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly cancelling the multi-billion-dollar project on Monday.
"Yes, Russia is a strategic problem for the time being and I hope that tomorrow Russia will be a strategic partner," Juncker said after talks with Bulgaria`s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, whose country is one of those worst affected by the pipeline cancellation.
"Everything the Commission can do in that respect will be done," he told reporters.
Juncker was asked about comments by Donald Tusk, the former Polish premier who took over as head of the European Council of EU leaders on Monday, who was quoted by the Financial Times as saying Russia had become a strategic problem.
After the Cold War, Russia and the EU signed a strategic partnership agreement in 1994 but that has been thrown into doubt by Moscow`s intervention in Ukraine.
The 28-nation EU and the United States have imposed a series of economic sanctions on Russia over the crisis.
The latest blow to relations came with Putin`s cancellation of South Stream -- which was meant to pump Russian gas into Europe without going through Ukraine -- on the grounds that Brussels was blocking the project."South Stream can be built. The conditions have been clear since a long time, there is nothing new. The ball is in the court of Russia," Juncker said.
"We are ready and preparatory works are under way."
He added: "We want energy to flow to Bulgaria and to the whole of Europe and will not accept any blackmailing on energy matters."
Bulgaria had strongly backed South Stream, but earlier this year it halted work after the EU said Sofia had breached the bloc`s competition rules.
Borisov also said he thought the project could still proceed, adding that Putin`s decision was "premature."
"I hope technical details standing in the way of South Stream can be overcome on December 9," when a previously scheduled EU meeting will go ahead as planned next week, he said.
Borisov meanwhile said that the former Soviet bloc state continued to support sanctions despite its economy "severely suffering" from effects to its trade with Russia.
The pipeline was intended to bring Russian gas underneath the Black Sea and through the Balkans, crossing Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary and Slovenia and then Austria to connect with the main European pipeline network.
Eastern European states heavily dependent on Russian gas welcomed the project because it eliminated cut crisis-hit Ukraine out of the loop, but many in the EU feared that it would increase the Kremlin`s influence over Europe.