Putin Vows Aid to Kiev's Nuclear Plants

ReutersPresidents Vladimir Putin and Leonid Kuchma said that once-sour relations between Russia and Ukraine are a thing of the past.
KHARKIV, Ukraine -- Presidents Leonid Kuchma and Vladimir Putin hailed on Friday a new era of bilateral cooperation and agreed to work together to develop Ukraine's ailing nuclear power sector.

Putin's visit to Ukraine, his sixth in two years, is being seen as a show of Moscow's renewed support for Kiev, its largest trading partner, after years of bitter political rows over gas debts ended with a deal in October.

"We are speaking about changes in the quality of our relations. We have become closer as partners. We now talk more thoroughly about our joint economic and foreign policy," Putin told reporters in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

Kuchma said Ukrainian-Russian ties were at their strongest point in a long time.

The statements mark a dramatic turnaround in relations, which soured after the collapse of the Soviet Union as Moscow and Kiev squabbled over the fate of the Black Sea Fleet and gas debts.

Ukraine's initial drive to the West and Europe ruffled feathers in Moscow, but its latest overtures to the European Union and NATO appear to have Putin's tacit approval.

In a measure of the thaw, Putin showed remarkable restraint this year when Ukrainian forces accidentally shot down a Russian airliner and denied involvement for a week. Russian officials went out of their way to say it should not mar relations.

On Friday, Moscow promised more funds for Ukraine to complete work on two new nuclear reactors intended to replace the closed Chernobyl plant, site of the world's worst civil nuclear disaster in 1986.

The governments plan to sign a financing deal by April, but it was not immediately clear how much money Russia was planning to lend. Russian experts estimate $400 million to $500 million is needed.

Ukraine is in a dispute with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development over funding for the reactors.

The EBRD has approved in principle a $215 million loan, but Kuchma last month dismissed the terms offered and accused Ukraine's previous government of betraying national interests by agreeing the deal.

On Friday, Kuchma, standing side by side with Putin, said Ukraine would nonetheless continue its talks with the EBRD.

"Ukraine is not throwing away the possibility of working with the EBRD," he told reporters. "But we are just saying: Do not push Ukraine into debt-slavery."

Analysts say the loan from Russia would further increase Ukraine's heavy dependence on Moscow for energy. Ukraine relies on Russia for more than 60 percent of its energy needs.

Putin also said the countries should coordinate their efforts to integrate into the global economy, including membership of the World Trade Organization.

"We have many joint tasks, and one of them is to achieve the conditions to enter the WTO, which will correspond to the national interests of Russia and Ukraine," Putin told several hundred business leaders at a forum in Kharkiv.

Ukraine and Russia are negotiating admission to the WTO, but the countries have to go a long way to reach a final agreement.

In Kharkiv, a traditional center of support in Ukraine for closer cooperation with its eastern neighbour, hundreds of townspeople braved freezing temperatures to line the streets and cheer Putin and Kuchma during their trip to an aircraft factory.