Ukraine has avoided a gas cutoff by Russia in a last-minute deal reached by the presidents of both nations for re-payment of a Ukrainian energy debt to Moscow. As VOA Moscow Correspondent Peter Fedynsky reports, the leaders also discussed a range of bilateral issues, including the controversial possibility of Ukraine joining NATO.

Faced with an imminent gas shutoff at day's end, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko told a Kremlin news conference that he had reached agreement with President Vladimir Putin to begin payment of Ukraine's gas debt to Russia. Gazprom, the Russian state energy giant, estimates that debt at one-point-five-billion dollars.

The Ukrainian leader says the premise of the deal is that accounts for deliveries made in 2007 will be settled according to the 2007 price. Payments will begin on Thursday and should be completed soon. Mr. Yushchenko says both sides agreed to keep this year's basic price of natural gas at $179 per 1,000 cubic meters.

President Putin noted that Ukraine's debt emerged as a result of harsh winter conditions in Central Asia. Normally less expensive gas is supplied from Central Asia through Russia to Ukraine, but Central Asian Exporters kept their less expensive gas. And Russia is contractually obligated to fill Central Asian supply shortages, but at higher European prices, which caught Ukraine by surprise.

Mr. Putin added that both sides are interested in European energy security.

The Kremlin leader says Ukraine and Russia have very good prospects for development of energy cooperation that could raise the significance of Ukraine as a major energy player in Europe. The possibility exists, he says, and it is in the interests of Russia.

President Putin was emphatic about his country's opposition to Ukrainian membership in NATO. While conceding that such membership is Ukraine's internal affair, he said NATO could deploy missiles in that country.

It is frightening, says Mr. Putin, to not only say, but even to think that such deployment areas - which cannot be excluded in theory - would prompt Russia to aim its missiles at Ukraine.

Mr. Yushchenko responded that every nation develops its own defense and security policies and noted that he agreed with Mr. Putin that both sides would hold consultations on the NATO issue for the sake of mutual understanding.

President Yushchenko said Ukraine's Constitution does not provide for the establishment of bases on its territory that belong to other countries or blocs.

Presidents Putin and Yushchenko met for the second time in the framework of the so-called Ukrainian-Russian Intergovernmental Commission.

Its first meeting was in Kyiv in December 2006. Both sides issued a 26-point bilateral action plan for the coming year that includes development of trade and economic relations, border demarcation, and the status of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.