KYIV— Moving aggressively to keep Ukraine in Moscow’s sphere of influence, Russia’s president has offered Ukraine $15 billion in loans and a sharp discount on natural gas prices.
Vladimir Putin made the offer to Viktor Yanukovych on Tuesday in an effort to block Ukraine from moving toward the European Union. Last month, President Yanukovych unexpectedly backed out of signing a trade and political pact with the EU.
Meeting in the Kremlin, the Russian president cautioned that his offer to cut gas prices is conditional.
“We believe this is a temporary decision, which means that long-term agreements should and will be signed,” Putin said after meeting his Ukrainian counterpart in the Kremlin.
President Yanukovych accepted the aid offer without disclosing the conditions; but, he knew that he would return home to face hostile protesters.
For the last month, protesters have occupied the center of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, demanding that a free trade pact be signed with Europe.
On his way to Kyiv’s international airport, the presidential motorcade passed protesters waving signs reading, “Yanukovych, turn back to Europe.”
After the Russian aid was announced, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of the opposition Fatherland Party, spoke to tens of thousands of protesters gathered on Kyiv’s Maidan square.
“We told Yanukovych, he signed the agreement with Russia; it is his one-way ticket” to Moscow, he told the crowd, apparently referring to a customs union that the Russia president is promoting.
President Putin wants to create a Eurasian Union from the Pacific Ocean to the borders of the European Union. Leaders of the two rival trade unions say that Ukraine cannot belong to both groups.
Oleg Tyagnibok, leader of the nationalist Svoboda, or Freedom, Party wondered what Ukraine’s president offered as guarantees for the massive loans.
“What kind of guarantee was offered for $15 billion?” he asked.
Russian and Ukrainian officials said that joining Putin’s customs union was not discussed in Moscow during the one-day visit by Ukraine’s leader.
As Yanukovych flew to Moscow, the European Business Association, a Kyiv-based group of 900 foreign and domestic businesses, called instead for Ukraine to win loans with the International Monetary Fund.
On his return, Ukraine’s president faces mounting political challenges.
Vitaly Klitschko, the heavyweight boxer turned opposition leader, challenged Yanukovych to face him in early presidential elections.
“Only early elections can be a solution for the country,” said Klitschko, the former World Boxing Council heavyweight champion. “I am challenging Yanukovych - he is my personal rival, and I am calling him to the ring.”
Presidential elections are to be held here in March 2015, but the ruling Regions Party is worried about the viability of Yanukovych as a candidate. On Monday, Regions Party parliamentary deputies called for a total overhaul of the Cabinet.
And, a recent effort to mount street demonstrations to support the president backfired. The Regions Party chartered trains and buses, but was only able to muster a crowd less than 10 percent the size of the opposition crowd, which was around 200,000.
The Kyiv Post reported that on the way home, some pro-government rally participants smashed train windows and papered cars with opposition stickers. They complained they had been paid far less than promised to demonstrate in support of the president.