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Putin will seek to repair damaged ties with Ukraine on visit

Putin, Yushchenko to discuss energy, WTO, fleet, Turkmenistan

Russian President Vladimir Putin will seek to improve ties with Ukraine on a visit today, in the midst of a power struggle between the former Soviet partner`s president and premier over whether its future lies with Russia or the West, according to Bloomberg.

Relations between the traditionally close Slavic states plunged after a 2004 ``Orange Revolution`` swept Viktor Yushchenko to Ukraine`s presidency on promises to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union and loosen dependence on Russia.

His bitter rival for the presidency, Viktor Yanukovych, is now prime minister and wants to turn back the clock. He is close to Putin and told NATO on a visit to Brussels that Ukraine doesn`t want to join. This is Putin`s first visit since Yanukovych became the head of government.

``It`s high time to bring bilateral relations to the level they deserve,`` said Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, in a telephone interview. ``The trend is positive`` in ties since Yanukovych became prime minister, he said, adding that Russia wants to work constructively with Yushchenko as well.

``What is important to us is that they both attach the appropriate importance to relations with Moscow,`` Peskov said.

Putin arrives as the Yushchenko-Yanukovych tensions have hit new depths. The president accused the premier on Dec. 14 of seeking ``revenge`` for his victory in the Orange Revolution by thwarting all his initiatives in domestic and foreign policy.

``My conflict with the premier is intensifying, but I am not to blame for this,`` Yushchenko told a press conference in Kiev. ``We both hold top posts in the country, our relations must correspond to this. But someone seems to think he has all the power and wants revenge.``

The prime minister`s powers exceed the president`s following a change in the constitution which took effect Jan. 1. This makes the timing of Putin`s visit fortuitous, said Nick Piazza, an analyst at Kiev-based brokerage Concorde Capital, as with Yanukovych in that position, ``Putin has influence here.``

Russia is implacably opposed to Ukraine`s NATO aspirations. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview published on Dec. 12 on the ministry`s Web site that the alliance`s expansion to Russia`s borders is a huge mistake that benefits no one and doesn`t make the world safer.

``We are convinced that the enlargement, by inertia, doesn`t have a well-argued foundation, and doesn`t contribute to an increase in security of the countries joining NATO, nor of the organization itself, nor, of course, of Russia,`` he said. ``In other words, NATO enlargement is a huge mistake by all those who thought it up and implemented it.``

Three former Soviet states -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- have already joined the bloc, and membership is a key foreign policy aim of Ukraine as well as the Southern Caucasus republic of Georgia. Since the target was adopted, Ukraine`s foreign policy has been thrown into turmoil by the appointment of Yanukovych as premier.

Parliament, where a Yanukovych-led coalition has a narrow majority, has dismissed the West-leaning foreign minister, Borys Tarasyuk. Yushchenko has ignored the vote dismissing him. Tarasyuk was prevented from entering a cabinet meeting on Dec. 20, not for the first time, making it hard to carry out his duties.

Russia`s warmth toward Yanukovych makes it more likely that Ukraine will enjoy uninterrupted natural gas supplies this winter. The country is the transit route for 80 percent of Russian supplies to Europe, which receives a quarter of its needs from Russia.

Supplies were briefly curbed in January after Ukraine rejected a fourfold increase in prices, leading to shortages in several European countries including Germany and Italy. Ukraine has now agreed to pay $130 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2007, a third more than it eventually agreed to pay this year.

Alexei Miller, chief executive of Russian gas monopoly OAO Gazprom, met Ukrainian Energy Minister Yuri Boyko on Dec. 15 to discuss boosting shipments of the fuel to western Europe through Ukraine`s pipeline network. Gazprom gave no details of the talks.

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