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Russia had to bail out 'brotherly' Ukraine: Putin

MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said Russia had offered Ukraine a multi-billion dollar bailout package to steer the neighboring “brotherly country” out of economic trouble and not to stem pro-EU protests.

Russia's economic assistance has infuriated the Ukrainian opposition spearheading mass street protests against President Viktor Yanukovych, whom they have accused of selling out to Moscow.

But using highly emotional language to describe Russia's relationship with the ex-Soviet state, Putin insisted that the generous gesture was only aimed at helping a fellow Slav country.

“Why did we take this decision? We often use the term 'brotherly nation', 'brotherly people'. And today we see that Ukraine is in a difficult situation, economically, socially and politically,” Putin said at his annual press conference.

“If we really say that this is a brotherly people and a brotherly country then we must act like close relatives and help the Ukrainian people in this difficult situation.”

Putin denied the assistance package had anything to do with the massive protests in Kiev or the Ukrainian government's aborted move late last month to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union.

Protesters are still occupying Independence Square in Kiev, known locally as the Maidan, in a bid to persuade the government to sign the EU trade and partnership pact, which would mark a major break with the Kremlin.

“It is not linked to the Maidan or the negotiations with Ukraine and the European Union,” Putin said.

“There is no need to think anything up. No one is trying to strangle anyone,” he added. “We are not trying to drag Ukraine anywhere.”

During talks with Yanukovych on Tuesday Putin agreed to buy US$15 billion of Ukraine's debt in eurobonds and slash its gas bill by a third, a move economists said would stave off the risk of a Ukrainian default for now.

He described the new gas agreement as “temporary” and said a long-term solution needed to be found that would allow Ukraine to keep the new lower price.

It has remained unclear what Russia is getting in return for the scheme and Putin has made clear he and Yanukovych did not discuss Kiev joining the Kremlin-led Customs Union of ex-Soviet states including Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Putin's traditionally marathon annual press conference was due to coincide later Thursday with a televised interview by Yanukovych with the main Ukraine television stations where he was expected to comment on the deal.

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