Moscow (AFP) – Ukraine’s embattled President Viktor Yanukovych sought Tuesday a multi-billion-dollar lifeline from Russia’s Vladimir Putin that could relieve a brewing economic crisis but also stoke huge pro-EU protests roiling Kiev streets.
The ex-Soviet nation of 46 million has been at the heart of a furious diplomatic tug of war since Yanukovych’s shock decision last month to ditch a landmark EU partnership agreement and seek closer ties with its traditional master Russia.
Putin told Yanukovych in opening remarks at the Kremlin that he viewed Ukraine as one of Russia’s “strategic partners”.
“I very much hope that we will be able to make progress on resolving our most sensitive issues,” said Putin.
Yanukovych replied that the two sides “should continue developing our strategic partnership” and said he especially hoped to resolve a festering feud about the price Russia charges for natural gas on which the Ukrainian economy depends.
“If we fail to sign something today, then we should be able (to sign it) in the near future and continue working further,” the Ukrainian leader said.
Tuesday’s high-stakes talks came two days after frustrated EU officials suspended months of negotiations they had hoped would pull Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit for the first time.
Diplomats in Brussels cited Yanukovych’s advances toward Russia for their decision and demanded a firmer commitment to EU standards on political freedoms and economic reforms.
But Yanukovych instead decided to seek an urgently needed cash advance from Russia — estimated by local media at anywhere between $5 billion and $12 billion — that his critics view as Putin’s reward for Kiev’s U-turn on the EU pact.
“A Russian loan can help Yanukovych keep power,” said Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.
“And the Kremlin is ready to help him because this meets Putin’s strategic interests,” the analyst said.
Yanukovych’s reversal sparked the largest anti-government rallies since the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution that first nudged Ukraine on a westward path.