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Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with students in Sochi, Russia, on Oct. 23.Mikhail Klimentyev/The Associated Press

There is a cautious but fragile hope that Ukrainians will not lack heat in the coming winter, in spite of the simmering military conflict involving Ukraine and Russia, and Ukraine's debt to Russia.

For the near future, mutual interest may yet prevail. A meeting in Milan last Friday between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine, Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko, apparently helped the way to a tentative, incomplete agreement.

Ukrainians do not want to freeze to death, and Russia does not really want to lose a market – especially a captive, neighbouring market – for its natural gas, least of all at a time of weak oil and gas prices. Bullying can deliver temporary advantages, but a reputation as an unreliable supplier is not an asset. Some countries are sensibly looking at alternative sources.

A number of terms remain to be resolved between Russia and Ukraine, as of the time of writing, but the essential point is that Ukraine will pay US$385 per 1,000 cubic metres of gas up to the end of March, 2015.

Russia's position is that it is already owed $5-billion for 2013 and so far for 2014. Ukraine is offering to pay down its debt by $2-billion or $3-billion by the end of 2014, the balance to be negotiated later.

In 2006 and 2009, Russia cut gas supplies to Ukraine and the Balkans. And that was at a time when Russia was not at war with Ukraine. Many people had to burn wood, as in the Middle Ages.

It is a strange situation in which a customer and a supplier are in an undeclared war of attrition with each other. The pro-Russian militants are apparently still being assisted by Russian regular military personnel who purport to be volunteers.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch believes that the Ukrainian army, and perhaps the rebels too, are using cluster bombs, contrary to an international convention, though not one signed by Ukraine.

Ukraine and Russia got close to a contract on gas, but at the last minute the Russians added an extra condition; namely, that unimpeachably solvent international lenders guarantee Ukraine's cash payments as of a week from Wednesday, at a meeting in Brussels.

Mr. Putin seems determined to squeeze more out of the Ukrainians and their government – both in heating and in warfare.