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Russia's Putin says Ukraine bailout not aimed against Europe

Source: Reuters - Thu, 19 Dec 2013 09:36 AM
Author: Reuters
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* Putin portrays Ukraine bailout as brotherly love

* Defends conservative course in third term

* Denies meeting former U.S. spy agency contractor

By Alexei Anishchuk and Timothy Heritage

MOSCOW, Dec 19 (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin on Thursday portrayed Russia's bailout of Ukraine as an act of brotherly love to stave off economic crisis and said it was not designed to keep its big neighbour out of Europe's clutches.

Russia agreed on Tuesday to buy $15 billion worth of Ukrainian Eurobonds and cut the price Kiev pays for Russian gas, weeks after Kiev spurned a trade pact with the European Union in a policy U-turn which touched off anti-government protests.

At a packed annual news conference, Putin brushed aside suggestions that he agreed to the bailout for geopolitical reasons and that it was a gamble at a time when Russia's own economy is fragile.

"Now we see that Ukraine is in difficult straits ... if we really say that they are a brotherly nation and people then we must act like close relatives and help this nation," Putin said, sitting behind a desk on a stage before rows of reporters.

"In no way is this connected with the Maidan (protests in central Kiev) or the European talks with Ukraine."

Putin, dressed in an immaculate suit and tie, a cup and saucer at his side, acknowledged that Ukraine's credit rating was not high but said Russia believed in the competitiveness of its fellow former Soviet republic's industry.

He reiterated that the decision to reduce the gas price was a temporary move but he hoped to "agree on long-term cooperation" in the energy sector.

Putin did not respond directly to a question about his failure to persuade Ukraine to join a customs union with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus which he hopes to build into a larger trading and political bloc.

PUTIN RELAXED AND CONFIDENT

The president, 61, looked relaxed and confident at the annual question-and-answer session with hundreds of journalists from across Russia which was broadcast across the nation. The annual news conference has often lasted more than four hours.

As expected, he used the news conference to confirm the increasingly conservative course he has charted in his third term as president, which began in May 2012.

This course is intended to appeal to his traditional power base in working class areas outside the big cities following protests against him in late 2011 and early 2012 which were led by middle class urbanites.

Asked about religious values after he moved closer to the Russian Orthodox Church in the past two years, he acknowledged he was taking "a conservative approach" but added that this was taking Russia forward.

Putin brushed aside a question about who might succeed him. He has been Russia's dominant politician since he was first elected president in 2000 and has the right to seek a new term - his fourth - when his current spell ends in 2018.

Asked about security matters, Putin said Russia had not yet deployed Iskander missiles to its western exclave of Kaliningrad in response to an anti-missile shield the United States is building in Europe with help from other members of NATO.

Poland and Baltic states reacted with alarm to recent media reports saying Russia has deployed Iskanders in Kaliningrad, and Putin has depicted Russia as a growing military might more than two decades after the Soviet Union collapsed.

But Putin said: "One of the possible responses is to deploy Iskander complexes in Kaliningrad ... but I want to draw your attention to the fact that such a decision has not yet been taken, let them be calm."

Putin, a former KGB spy, said he had not met former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden, to whom Russia granted political asylum this year. He also said Russian intelligence agencies had not made contact with Snowden.

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