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Yanukovych's secret meeting with Putin raises questions of Customs Union promise (UPDATED)

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Dec. 7, 2013, 12:53 p.m. | Ukraine — by Christopher J. Miller

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (L) and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
© AFP

Christopher J. Miller

Editor Christopher J. Miller joined the Kyiv Post in January 2013. He is an American journalist with experience at daily, weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines. He's also a correspondent for Mashable and GlobalPost, and has published with The Times of London, The Independent and The Telegraph, among others. A native of Portland, Oregon and a graduate of Portland State University, he is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Ukraine 2010-2012).

A secret meeting between Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Dec. 6 has fueled speculation as to whether a deal was made for Ukraine at a later date to join the Kremlin-led Customs Union.

Yanukovych stopped in Sochi on his way back to Ukraine from a three-day working visit to China, where he met with officials in hope of shoring up investment deals in order to stave off serious economic problems in Ukraine. 

He and Putin met in the Black Sea resort city to discuss new agreements on "trade and economic cooperation in different economic spheres and preparation to the future Strategic Partnership Agreement," according to a statement released by the president's press service.

But the fact that the meeting was the fourth of its kind in recent weeks further fueled speculation that a plan had been hatched for Ukraine's accession to the Customs Union, which includes Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. Armenia in recent weeks agreed also to join.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told journalists previously that the president would at some point soon visit Moscow, where a "major agreement" would be signed.

That "major agreement", according to a Kyiv Post source within the Ukrainian government who asked to remain anonymous because he was not allowed to speak publicly about the presidents' meeting, confirmed that a money deal was reached, but provided no specifics. 

But Edward Lucas, a senior editor at The Economist, said via Twitter that the results of the meeting between the two presidents were much bigger than a deal for Russia to supply cash-starved Ukraine with much necessary financing.

"Wow! Hearing Yanukovich in Sochi today signed strategic agrt w Russia includes $5BN+ up front, gas price $200 + agrt to join customs union," Lucas said, citing his own sources.

The details of the agreement to join the Customs Union, which reportedly include billions up front for the country, as well as a huge price cut on gas, were being hammered out in Moscow late on Dec. 6, Lucas wrote.

The Kyiv Post could not independently confirm Lucas' news. A Kremlin official contacted by Kyiv Post denied to comment and said only to look for statements on the Kremlin's official website. As of 11:40 a.m. on Dec. 7, the only statement posted to the site confirmed a visit by Yanukovych to Sochi. 

However, RIA Novosti, the Russian state-owned news agency, quoted Putin's head spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying that "Putin and Yanukovych at a meeting on Friday in Sochi did not discuss the possibility of Ukraine joining the Customs Union."

"Putin and Yanukovych did discuss the current state and prospects of bilateral cooperation in the financial sphere (between Russia and Ukraine)," Peskov added. "On all these topics in the near future negotiations will continue at the expert level."

Whether true or not, the news of a potential deal for Ukraine to join the Kremlin-led trade bloc is certain to incite anger on the streets of Ukraine, where tens of thousands have protested for more than three weeks the Ukrainian government's decision to abandon long-anticipated agreements on association and free trade with the European Union.

Ahead of Lucas' news, Arseniy Yatseniuk, leader of the Batkivschyna faction, warned that the signing by Yanukovych of any agreement aimed at joining Ukraine to the Customs Union will cause a second wave of mass protests here.

"Their attempts to sell Ukraine to Russia will not lead to anything except one thing, and we are officially warning you: if Viktor Yanukovych tries to sign any agreement aimed at joining Ukraine to the Customs Union, it will cause another wave of protests in Ukraine," he said. "No one will let Yanukovych sell the country."

Kyiv Post editor Christopher J. Miller can be reached at miller@kyivpost.com.

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