Putin: EU blackmailing Ukraine over halt in trade deal

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the EU of "blackmailing" and “pressuring” Ukraine over its decision to suspend preparations for a trade pact with the bloc. He added that Ukraine’s decision will be clear in the next few days.

"When we heard (I just found out yesterday) that Ukraine has suspended – not canceled but suspended – negotiations with the EU and wants to review everything, we heard a threat from the EU to Ukraine up to the point of holding mass protests. This is pressure and blackmail," Putin said at a joint press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in St. Petersburg.  

Putin reiterated Russia's readiness to hold three-way talks with the EU and Ukraine on trade and the economy.

“President Yanukovych suggested that we should have three-way talks on these problems,” Putin said. “We are ready to participate in such talks, and this is in a way a test of how serious our European partners’ intentions are. It’s a test of how ready our European friends are to conduct negotiations on an equal basis, or the absence of such readiness.”

Putin added that there “shouldn’t be any politicizing” of the situation, adding that Turkey has a “big experience of negotiating with the EU” and Russia will ask the advice of Ankara on how to behave in this situation.

Erdogan smiled, and said it “was a not a joke,” as Turkey has 50 years’ experience of trade talks with the EU.

Ukraine’s integration with the EU is not a political issue, but an economic one, Putin added.

At one point in the press conference, Putin lightened the mood with a joke – at America’s expense.

A Russian journalist brought up the question of a phone call between Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his Lithuanian counterpart, Dalia Grybauskaite. Grybauskaite’s aide, Jovita Neliupšienė, claimed that Moscow had warned Kiev off the EU deal, the journalist said.

Putin replied he had no information about what was said in the call, but added, smiling, that maybe the question should be asked instead to the United States.

“I do not know what the president of Ukraine and the president of Lithuania were talking about. Maybe we can ask our American friends and they can tell us. But they haven’t said anything to us yet," Putin said, apparently referring to the latest scandal with the US National Security Agency’s surveillance program and their tapping of EU leaders’ phones.

Ukraine’s government signed a degree Thursday suspending preparations for the association agreement between Ukraine and the EU. Lawmakers said that the decision was taken after Kiev considered the effects of the association on its trade relations with Moscow.

Russia welcomed Kiev’s desire to rekindle ties with Moscow, and Putin said that he wasn't completely against Ukraine's association with the EU. The Ukrainian president however said that his country would continue its efforts towards European integration, despite the “difficulties.”

Putin said Friday that after Ukraine’s decision, the two countries now have a free trade zone agreement.

“It means that in many product groups, very sensitive to both countries, we have zero export and import tariffs. The level of customs protection of our territory in relations with EU partners is very different. We have achieved this status as a result of negotiations within the framework of the World Trade Organization, which were carried out over the past 17 years.” 

If Ukraine signs a trade pact with the EU resetting its trade tariffs, then this would automatically affect Russia if it keeps its free trade zone with Ukraine, Putin said, adding that this could destroy entire sectors of the Russian economy.

Putin said that the competitiveness of Russian agriculture and a number of other industries had not yet met the European Union’s requirements. If Ukraine went ahead with its Euro-integration deal, Russia would be forced to cancel preferential tariffs with Kiev, he said.