* Talks aim to calm Russian fears over EU-Ukraine trade deal
* EU has rejected proposal for three-way talks in the past
* EU set to sign Ukraine deal on June 27
By Jan Strupczewski
BRUSSELS, June 13 The European Union and Russia
agreed on Friday to hold high level talks, including Ukraine, on
Kiev's expected signing of an EU free trade agreement after
Moscow warned last week it would retaliate with measures to
protect its economy.
Ukraine's government is set to sign the free trade agreement
with the European Union on June 27, over the objections of
Russia, which fears the agreement will be harmful for its own
Last November, the EU rejected an idea of trilateral talks
with Russia on Ukraine's EU association agreement, a deal that
would mark a historic Westwards shift by the former Soviet
republic away from Russia's orbit.
The current offer still does not give Russia a say on the
shape of Ukraine's agreement, it only opens the way for
trilateral consultations on the consequences of the deal.
But it still appears to be a partial concession on the part
of the EU to better engage Moscow.
In a phone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin on
Friday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso
offered to raise the level of consultations with Moscow on the
Ukraine agreement to a political, from an expert one, the
Commission said in a statement.
"They (Barroso and Putin) discussed the upcoming signature
on 27 June of the Association Agreement and the Deep and
Comprehensive Free Trade Area with Ukraine," the statement said.
"As a way to dispel any concerns, President Barroso offered
President Putin the possibility to pursue the ongoing bilateral
talks with Russia at technical level as well as to hold
political level consultations, associating Ukraine," it said,
adding Putin agreed.
The political level talks may involve EU Trade Commissioner
Karel De Gucht and possibly Russia's economy minister, officials
Ukraine's association agreement with the EU has been at the
heart of the conflict between Moscow and Kiev, which led to the
Russian annexation of Crimea in March and the subsequent
pro-Russian separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine.
Under intense pressure from Moscow, which wants Ukraine to
become part of its own Eurasian union, former Ukrainian
President Viktor Yanukovich renounced plans to sign the EU deal
last November, just days before the signing ceremony.
The choice of closer ties with Russia rather than the EU
triggered popular protests in Ukraine that eventually toppled
The EU is mediating in separate talks between Russia and
Ukraine on a gas pricing dispute. Ukraine began preparing on
Friday for Russia to cut off its gas after talks on the dispute
broke down, raising the prospect of supplies to the European
Union also being disrupted from Monday.
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Alison