Putin Urges Breakthrough In Relations With Ukraine

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russian President Vladimir Putin said he hopes Russia and Ukraine will achieve "real" strategic cooperation soon, the Kremlin press office reported Thursday.

In a letter to congratulate President Viktor Yushchenko on Ukrainian Independence Day, Putin said: "Our people have always been and remain the closest neighbors, bound by strong bonds of friendship and trust. I am positive mutual understanding and compromise will help us tackle unresolved problems and achieve a real strategic partnership in our relations."

Putin said circumstances were favorable for improved cooperation between the two countries, and he highlighted areas of primary concern as including energy, investment and contacts within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose union of former Soviet nations.

Russia has pinned its hopes on Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's new prime minister. As a representative of the largely Russian-speaking industrial east of Ukraine, he is seen as someone who can balance the Western-oriented policies being pursued by the Yushchenko government.

Relations between the two former Soviet neighbors were marred by a series of disputes since Yushchenko and his "orange revolution" team came to power in early 2005, the gas price row being the most acute among them.

Russia briefly turned off natural gas supplies to Kiev in early 2006 after Ukraine refused to pay a market price for it. Ukraine and Russia then exchanged accusations, with Ukraine condemning what it called political revenge, and Russia claiming that gas intended for Europe was being siphoned off.

Yanukovych, who was confirmed as premier in early August, made his first official foreign visit to Russia. He later said a compromise price for natural gas, crucial to Ukraine's fuel-intensive heavy industry, would not be raised further this year, though the price for 2007 had yet to be negotiated.

While in Russia, Yanukovych also said the two countries should intensify talks aimed at establishing a common economic space. The project -- which also involves Kazakhstan and Belarus -- has been criticized by pro-Western politicians in Ukraine, who have pushed for European integration, for allegedly being dominated by Russia.

But Yanukovych toned down his pro-Russian rhetoric since a national unity agreement was signed with the "orange" team in late July, ending the protracted political crisis in Ukraine.

Source: RIA Novosti