Russia's Putin Takes New, Warm Tone Towards Ukraine

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russia's President Vladimir Putin went out of his way to compliment Ukraine's West-leaning president at a lunch with scholars, suggesting an attempt to thaw recent frosty relations, participants at the meeting said.

President Vladimir Putin

Putin's new warmth towards Kiev and President Viktor Yushchenko could help in forthcoming talks on gas supplies, an issue that sparked a major row last January and disrupted supplies to Western Europe.

"(Putin) really complimented President Yushchenko. It is the first time I have heard anything positive from Putin on Yushchenko personally," Nikolai Zlobin, of the Washington-based World Security Institute, said late on Saturday.

Moscow's relations with Kiev soured when the 2004 "Orange Revolution" swept Yushchenko to power and defeated Viktor Yanukovich, the candidate openly favoured by the Kremlin.

But a coalition of the president's allies collapsed and last month Yanukovich became prime minister in a power-sharing deal with Yushchenko.

Putin was speaking at an annual lunch on Saturday for about 50 Russia scholars, mainly from the United States and Europe.

"(Putin) said Yushchenko was a great man, and that we have stability now for the next five years, and that this is good for Europe," said Alexander Rahr of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Kiev hopes Yanukovich's closer ties with Moscow will help it in talks with Russian gas monopoly Gazprom.

Ukraine pays $95 per 1,000 cubic metres of gas imported via Russia. That deal expires on Jan. 1 and Gazprom has said the price could go up to $230. Ukraine says it hopes to limit the hike to about $135 per 1,000 cubic metres.

A big price hike could cripple Ukraine's fuel-hungry economy.

Customers for Russian gas in the European Union are also watching the negotiations closely because the main pipelines supplying them pass through Ukraine.

Gazprom turned off supplies to Ukraine earlier this year over a contract dispute. That briefly disrupted supplies to Europe.

The Kremlin has not released details of what was said at the four-hour lunch, at Putin's residence near Moscow.

Source: Reuters