MOSCOW Dec 12 Russian President Vladimir Putin
made a new attempt to woo Ukraine on Thursday after the European
Union and United States stepped up efforts to pull Kiev out of
its former Soviet master's orbit.
A day after European and U.S. officials held talks with
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in Kiev, Putin used a
state of the nation address to tout the economic benefits of
joining a customs union that he wants Ukraine to be part of.
Yanukovich - who is seeking the best possible deal for his
country of 46 million as it tries to stave off bankruptcy -
provoked street protests in Kiev by spurning the chance to sign
a free-trade pact with the EU last month and saying he wanted to
revive ties with Russia instead.
But he has hedged his bets by making no commitment to join
the Moscow-led customs union and holding out the possibility
that Kiev could still sign an association agreement that would
deepen cooperation with the EU.
"Our integration project is based on equal rights and real
economic interests," Putin said of the customs union with
Belarus and Kazakhstan, which he wants to turn into a political
and trading bloc to match the United States and China.
"I'm sure achieving Eurasian integration will only increase
interest (in it) from our other neighbours, including from our
Putin's ambition to create a Eurasian Union stretching from
the Pacific to the EU's eastern borders depends largely on
whether Ukraine signs up, bringing in its rich mineral resources
and its large market, a bridge to the 28-nation bloc.
With thousands of people on the streets of Kiev demanding
Yanukovich's resignation, the diplomatic battle over Ukraine's
fate is heating up.
YANUKOVICH STANDS FIRM
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and U.S. Assistant
Secretary of State Victoria Nuland came away with no obvious
sign of a breakthrough after Wednesday's talks with Yanukovich.
"Yanukovich made it clear to me he intends to sign the
association agreement," Ashton told reporters in Brussels.
But making clear that Yanukovich was holding out for money
to help repay Ukraine's debts, she said: "What he talked about
were the short-term economic issues that the country faces."
Another EU official said there had been no change in
Yanukovich's position. If anything, he said, the president's
stance had toughened.
Nuland's visit was followed by a tough statement from
Washington condemning the Ukrainian authorities over action by
riot police who moved against a protest camp in the heart of
Kiev but later withdrew without ousting them.
"All policy options, including sanctions, are on the table,
in our view, obviously that still is being evaluated," State
Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
She declined to specify what kinds of sanctions may be under
consideration. But U.S. lawmakers are considering legislation to
deny visas to Ukrainian officials or freeze their U.S. assets if
violence against the demonstrators worsens.
European leaders say the trade pact with Ukraine would have
brought investment. But the country's Soviet-era industry relies
on Russian natural gas, giving Moscow enormous leverage.
Moscow has condemned what it sees as fierce foreign pressure
on Ukraine, and the EU has accused Russia of using economic
blackmail against Kiev. Russian media have raised the spectre of
civil war in Ukraine to wave the flag for Putin.
Russia is widely thought to have been trying to attract
Ukraine with the promise of cheap credits, reduced prices for
natural gas and the promise of trade benefits. The alternative
would be crippling trade sanctions and energy prices.
Asked what Ukraine was seeking at talks, one Russian
official said bluntly: "Money!"
Without international aid, investors fear Ukraine will
struggle to repay $7 billion of hard currency debt falling due
next year, while it is also dealing with a large balance of
payments deficit and unpaid gas bills from Russia.
The most Brussels has so far offered Ukraine is 610 million
euros but EU officials are in discussion with the International
Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other major financial
institutions on ways to help Ukraine.