MOSCOW: 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 (3.6 billion and 8.7 billion euros) -- 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.
It has also exposed the deeply embedded cultural fault lines that run between the nationalist and Ukrainian-speaking west of the country and the more Russified east aligned with Moscow.
The Ukrainian government has organised counter-rallies by bussing thousands of people into Kiev from eastern regions where Yanukovych enjoys broader support.
Yet those demonstrations have been dwarfed by the pro- EU protest -- a permanent camp that features rock concerts and gathers hundreds of thousands on the same central square that was at the heart of the 2004 revolt.
The latest big rally drew nearly 300,000 people to central Kiev on Sunday and the opposition plans another monster gathering on Tuesday evening aimed at putting still more pressure on Yanukovych during his Kremlin talks.
Events in recent days suggest Yanukovych is scrambling for a way out of the deepest political crisis of his nearly four-year rule.
He held an inconclusive meeting with three top protest leaders on Friday and followed that up by sacking senior officials whom he held responsible for a violent crackdown on protesters at the end of last month.
But the Ukrainian leader has firmly rejected the opposition's main demand that Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resign immediately and fresh presidential and parliamentary polls be held.
Yanukovych hopes to sign a series of deals with Putin that besides the loan include a Russian natural gas rebate that could provide some relief to a Ukrainian economy that has been shrinking since the first half of last year.
"Our manufacturers are impatiently waiting (for a new gas agreement)," Yanukovych told Putin at the Kremlin.
But demonstrators fear that Yanukovych will in fact be putting Ukraine on a path toward future membership in a Russian-led Customs Union that Putin hopes to build into a rival to the 28-nation EU bloc.
The Ukrainian government rejects the idea that a Customs Union deal might be signed on Tuesday. But this has failed to allay the protest movement's worst fears.
"If Yanukovych signs an agreement on Ukraine's membership in the Customs Union, he will be buying a one-way ticket to Moscow," said opposition lawmaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Nationalist opposition leader Oleg Tyagnybok said his Svoboda (Freedom) party had learned that Putin intended to reward Yanukovych for delaying the EU deal's signature with a $5.0-billion (3.6-billion euro) loan.
He said Russia would also lower the gas price it charges the Ukrainian state energy company to $200-$300 per thousand cubic metres from the more than $400 that it pays now.