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EU leaders face moment of reflection over Ukraine debacle

Pro-European integration protesters are seen through an EU flag during a rally near the Interior Ministry headquarters in Kiev December 17,
Pro-European integration protesters are seen through an EU flag during a rally near the Interior Ministry headquarters in Kiev December 17,

By Luke Baker

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European leaders face a session of soul-searching and strategy planning over Ukraine at their year-end summit on Friday when they will discuss why Kiev rejected an EU free trade deal and took a bailout from Russia instead.

As well as weighing Ukraine's decision to turn away and what Europe might have done to prevent it, leaders will debate the message they want to send to swathes of Ukrainians now protesting against President Viktor Yanukovich's move.

They will also have to agree what line to take with Russia, which applied intense political and economic pressure on the former Soviet republic to spurn the EU deal. Russian President Vladimir Putin and the EU are due to hold talks in Brussels in late January.

Asked how the leaders' discussion was likely to go on Friday, one senior official involved in the talks said: "The goal will be to prevent a whole lot of Russia-bashing."

Yanukovich's rejection of the EU deal at a meeting with European leaders in Vilnius last month has already prompted some self-examination, including questions over whether the EU should have offered more money or potential membership to Ukraine as an inducement.

Moscow has said it will give Yanukovich's government a $15 billion lifeline and slash the price of its gas by around a third, two gifts Ukraine could not ignore.

But the EU has argued its offer of a free-trade and political association agreement was not short on financial incentives either. A document prepared by EU officials shows benefits of up to $19 billion could have flowed to Ukraine over seven years if it had signed up.

DEEPENING DISTRUST

Even if those numbers had been presented to Yanukovich ahead of the Vilnius meeting, it seems unlikely that he would have plumped for the EU deal given the amount of pressure he was under from the Kremlin.

Following two secret meetings with Putin in November, Yanukovich told EU officials it was going to cost Ukraine $160 billion over three years to sign up with them, in terms of the cost of meeting EU obligations and lost trade with Russia.

EU officials dismissed the number as complete fantasy and there was no evidence to back it up. But it showed the kind of money that Yanukovich, whose son is a multi-millionaire and who surrounds himself with oligarchs, is keen to attract.

"Yanukovich and his clan are afraid of losing everything if they lose power," said Ulrich Speck, an expert on Ukraine with Carnegie Europe, a think tank in Brussels.

"Therefore they struggle for survival," he said, pointing out that if Yanukovich is to win presidential elections in 2015, he will need Russia's backing and creative influence.

A draft of the statement to be released after the summit showed EU leaders would reaffirm their offer of a free-trade and association deal as soon as Ukraine is ready to sign and meets the agreed conditions.

They will urge a "peaceful solution to the political crisis in Ukraine that meets the aspirations of the Ukrainian people". Despite those measured words, there is almost no expectation that Ukraine will move closer to the EU soon.

In an indication of how distrustful European leaders now are of Yanukovich, an EU official on Thursday related an episode from the Vilnius summit, when there were tense moments between the Ukrainian president and his EU counterparts.

The official said that after meeting Yanukovich, British Prime Minister David Cameron said: "He's from a different civilization. He's not a partner for Europe at all."

British officials said it was not the sort of phrase Cameron would have used, but pointed out that he was in agreement with many other EU leaders who had expressed reservations about the direction Yanukovich was moving his country in.

Yanukovich may not be a partner for the European Union, but he has become a partner for Russia, and the EU and Russia will discuss how their relations are going next month.

(Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Paul Taylor)

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