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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Meets Kuchma, Takes on War Protester

KIEV -- President-elect Vladimir Putin opted for a little direct action on Tuesday when met by Ukrainian protesters angry over Moscow's assault on Chechnya.

Putin, who encountered banner-waving demonstrators during a walkabout in Kiev with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, took a pen, grabbed one protester's poster and crossed out "Murderer of Chechens."

In its place, he wrote: "Russia and Chechnya together against terrorism and extremism!"

The demonstrator, stunned by the president-elect's action, replied by saying he hoped for friendship between Ukraine and Russia.

Such was the hope also expressed by Putin and Kuchma, who emerged upbeat and jovial after a day of talks at the ornate Mariyinsky Palace in downtown Kiev.

Those talks touched on cooperation in arms production, nuclear reactor construction and Ukraine's enormous gas debts to Russia. Kuchma pronounced himself "deeply satisfied" with the talks afterwards, adding, "Despite a series of problems in Russian-Ukrainian relations ... we found a way today to solve them in the future."

Regarding producing arms together, the two presidents gave no details of what had been said or decided, although Putin said it was time to curb "those petty intermediaries stuffing their pockets." Russia and Ukraine were major arms producers in the Soviet era and now often compete for export contracts.

Putin also said Russia was willing to help Ukraine complete two new nuclear reactors meant to compensate for the planned closure of the Chernobyl power plant, site of the world's worst-ever nuclear accident in 1986. He urged Western countries to provide money for the project, as promised.

Ukraine's huge debt for Russian natural gas supplies also featured prominently in Tuesday's talks, although the two leaders gave no indication whether a solution had been found.

Ukraine puts the gas debts at about $1.4 billion, but Russian gas officials say the figure stands at $2.1 billion.

Russia is Ukraine's main trading partner. The trade turnover, which dropped by 17 percent since the August 1998 ruble crash, reached $10.4 billion last year and is gaining momentum again.

But relations between Ukraine and Russia have been troubled.

A key rift has been over division of the ex-Soviet Black Sea Fleet and control over the mainly ethnic Russian Crimean peninsula. Many Russian politicians say Sevastopol, the fleet's Crimean home base, should belong to Russia.

Agreements were reached in 1997 on the fleet's division, but tensions remain.

Putin and Kuchma were to visit Sevastopol later Tuesday and board flagships of the Black Sea Fleet's Russian and Ukrainian parts in a show of friendship. Putin also planned to confer with fleet officials before leaving for Moscow on Tuesday evening.

Another point of tension between Moscow and Kiev, Putin said Tuesday, was that Ukrainian nationalist groups have been putting a pro-Chechen, anti-Russian spin on the war.

The UNA-UNSO Ukrainian nationalist party has opened information centers about the war in Kiev and Lviv, while another nationalist party, Rukh, has lent its backing to a war information center operating in the Black-Sea port of Odessa. The nationalists say they are wary of possible Russian imperialist designs and view the war in Chechnya as a Chechen liberation struggle.

Putin said the nationalists "are trying to provide information services to terrorist organizations ... acting against the interests of Russia and of the Ukrainian people."

Kuchma said he had ordered the Ukrainian Justice Ministry to look into the centers.

Putin flew to Kiev from London, where the night before he had met with Queen Elizabeth II for 50 minutes, instead of the originally planned 15 minutes. On Tuesday Putin said he had been pleasantly surprised to find the queen had an avid interest in affairs of state and relations with Russia.

"I had been told the queen is not interested in anything political and speaks only on social issues," Putin said. "On the contrary, the queen is very well informed on a number of international issues and on security matters and she displayed avid interest."