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EU and Russian ties 'under strain' over Ukraine

The Russian foreign minister and his European Union counterparts remain at odds over Ukraine's future. Their meeting came a day before Moscow and Kyiv are due to move a step closer together.

Watch video 01:36

Ukraine at the center of discussions

Speaking after the luncheon meeting in Brussels on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he had agreed with his EU counterparts that Ukraine should choose freely which direction it would take.

"It was our common agreement that everyone should respect the sovereignty of any country including Ukraine, and everyone should allow the people to make their free choice of how they want to develop their country or how they want to develop their state," he said.

However, in a sign of the tensions arising from Ukraine's decision three weeks ago to scrap an association agreement with the EU, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt had hard words for Russia before the meeting.

Bildt accused Russia of utilizing a propaganda campaign "based on misinformation and sometimes outright lies against the (EU-Ukraine) agreement ... It is both a propaganda war and economic pressure that they exert against Ukraine."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said EU-Russia relations were under a "strain" over Ukraine, which has seen

weeks of sometimes violent street protests

following President Viktor Yanokovych's decision not to go ahead with the deal.

Still ready to sign

But the EU foreign ministers reiterated the bloc's willingness to strike a deal under the original terms agreed last month.

"If there's a clear message from Kyiv, we're ready to sign tomorrow," Bildt said.

The EU

suspended partnership talks with Kyiv

on Sunday after accusing the Ukrainian leadership of being disingenuous.

Outgoing German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the talks with Lavrov had been "open" and "important."

He said it was vital to keep up dialogue with Russia despite disagreements in certain areas. He also rejected accusations that the EU had provoked the conflict with Russia by failing to include it in negotiations with Ukraine over the deal, saying there had been frequent talks with Moscow about the matter.

Crucial Kyiv-Moscow talks

Ukraine's ruling party on Monday called for a sweeping cabinet overhaul in an apparent sign that the weeks-long protests are having an effect, a day after

more than 200,000 people gathered in Kyiv's Independence Square

calling for the Ukraine to turn toward the West rather than its former Soviet master, Moscow.

However, Yanukovych is due on Tuesday to hold crucial talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during which a number of deals are due to be signed. They include an agreement for cheaper Russian natural gas shipments and a multi-billion-dollar loan to bolster the faltering Ukrainian economy.

Government critics fear that Yanukovych may also take the first steps toward making Ukraine the member of a Russian-led customs union that Moscow hopes will be a rival to the EU.

The government has denied that a deal on the customs union will be signed at Tuesday's meeting, but the opposition remained skeptical.

Nationalist opposition leader Oleg Tyagnibok said his Freedom Party had learned that Putin intended to reward Yanukovych for delaying the signing of the EU deal with a 3.6-billion-euro ($5-billion) loan and a reduction in the price for Russian gas.

"That is the baggage Yanukovych is taking with him to Moscow," he told reporters.

tj/msh (AFP, dpa, epd)

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