Russia is ready to hold talks on extending the presence of its Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine`s Crimea, the president said Wednesday, according to RIA Novosti.

      The presence of Russia`s fleet in Ukraine has been a source of contention between ex-Soviet neighbors, who clashed earlier in the year over the ownership of lighthouses, and Ukraine`s demand for a hike in the rent Russia pays. Ukrainian media have speculated that future deals on the base will be linked to the price Russia offers for natural gas supplied to Ukraine.

      Vladimir Putin, speaking at his annual televised question-and-answer session, said: "Russia is not striving for an early withdrawal of the fleet from Crimea."

      The president said Russia`s naval presence on the peninsular could prove useful for Ukraine.

      "If need be, if asked by the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian leadership, Russia could guarantee non-interference in [Ukraine`s] internal affairs," he said, adding that this would have to be the choice of Russia`s neighbor.

      Under a bilateral agreement signed by the Russia and Ukraine`s leaders in 1997, the fleet is to remain in Sevastopol until 2017, at an annual rent of $93 million.

      The Sevastopol city court ruled in September that the fleet surrender lighthouses and other property along the Crimean coast. Ukraine`s Foreign Ministry backed the ruling, saying Russia had no ownership rights under intergovernmental agreements.

      After Russian energy giant Gazprom sought a significant increase in the price it charges Ukraine for natural gas at the end of last year, Kiev threatened to increase the rent to $1.8 billion.

      The Ukrainian ministry criticized Russia`s refusal to comply with the Sevastopol court ruling, saying this position is in breach of international law.