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Russian President Putin rejects meddling in Ukraine

The EU and Russia agreed on Tuesday to discuss their sharp differences over Ukraine and eastern Europe as President Vladimir Putin again warned against foreign meddling in former Soviet states.

BRUSSELS: The EU and Russia agreed on Tuesday to discuss their sharp differences over Ukraine and eastern Europe as President Vladimir Putin again warned against foreign meddling in former Soviet states.

Putin went into a summit with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso billed as a "clear the air session" only for both sides to come out stressing the positives.

Apparently aiming to calm the waters in Ukraine, Putin also promised not to review crucial aid worth $15 billion (11 billion euros) even if the opposition, hostile to closer ties with Russia, takes power there.

"In direct answer to your question as to whether we will review our agreements on loans and energy if the opposition comes to power - no we will not," Putin told a press conference after the talks.

"This is not important to us," Putin said, noting that Moscow had had "a very constructive dialogue" with Ukraine when it was led by now-jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

At the same time, "we want to be sure that this money comes back," the president added.

Putin's comments came against a backdrop of fast-moving events in Ukraine, where the government resigned and parliament repealed a raft of anti-protest laws which had sparked violent clashes in Kiev.

The Russian leader went into a summit lasting a little under three hours with Van Rompuy and Barroso which EU officials said was much needed to review strained ties.

In November, Moscow pressured Ukraine into dropping a trade and political deal meant to be the centrepiece of the EU's much vaunted Eastern Partnership strategy - tightening relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine on the basis of shared democratic values.

Only Georgia and Moldova remain on track after Ukraine ditched the accord.

There had to be some "straight talking," one EU official said, amid growing exasperation with Russian efforts to try to bring its former Soviet-era satellites in eastern Europe firmly back into its fold.

Van Rompuy said the meeting was "productive, with frank and far-reaching discussion on the fundamentals" and reiterated Brussels's view that the Eastern Partnership policy stood to benefit all, including Russia.

Contrary to Moscow's assertion, it would not affect Russia's links with "our common neighbours," he said, but conceded, significantly, that there could be "different interpretations and misunderstandings" about this policy.

Accordingly the two sides would hold technical level talks to go over the issues, hoping to make progress by the next summit in Sochi in June.

Such talks "will be extremely useful... there are different understandings on both sides, so we need to check our watches, so to speak," Putin said.

But just as with the twist to the loan commitment, Putin was also quick to reject all foreign interference in Ukraine, saying visits by overseas envoys added to the unrest.

"I think that the more intermediaries there are, the more problems there are," Putin said, remarks made as EU foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton, who attended the summit, readied to leave for another trip to Kiev.

"At the very least, Russia will never interfere," Putin said in a thinly-veiled sideswipe.

Both sides notably refused to be drawn by journalists' questions on a whole series of sharp differences - human rights, trade frictions and international issues such as Iran and Syria - and chose to play up the common ground.

They both noted trade ties worth some one billion euros a day and growing fast, while they shared the same aim of ending the bloody conflict in Syria and resolving questions Iran's contested nuclear programme.

With Russia proudly hosting the Sochi Winter Olympics, they also issued a joint statement on combating terrorism, calling for increased cooperation and sharing of information, among other measures.

The summit was unusually low-key, without the usual massive security presence at the EU's headquarters in Brussels.

The only discordant note was a protest by two bare-breasted activists from the feminist group FEMEN, who were detained by Belgian police.

"Putin, Killer of Democracy" was scrawled across the torso of one while the other sported a Stalin-style moustache and the words "Good Job Putin".

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