Putin meets Ukraine's Yanukovych on Sochi sidelines

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych before a reception to greet foreign guests prior to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games opening ceremony in Sochi, Russia, on Friday Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mr Yanukovych, left, is likely to have raised the issue of a suspended Russian bailout programme for Ukraine's battered economy

Russian President Vladimir Putin met his embattled Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics, officials say.

Neither side would confirm what was discussed during the informal conversation during the opening ceremony in the Russian city of Sochi.

Russia has frozen delivery of a $15bn (£9bn) bailout programme pending the formation of a new government in Kiev.

Mass anti-government protests erupted in Ukraine in late November.

Under pressure from Moscow, President Yanukovych had refused to sign a far-reaching association and trade agreement with the EU.

Amid continuing protests, Mr Yanukovych has accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov - widely seen as pro-Moscow - and a new prime minister has yet to be nominated.

Struggle for influence

The meeting between Mr Putin and Mr Yanukovych in Sochi on Friday evening was confirmed by senior Russian and Ukrainian officials.

There was no information about what was discussed, but correspondents speculate it was likely to include the suspended Russian financial package - which Ukraine desperately needs in the face of a sliding currency, dwindling foreign reserves and rising borrowing costs.

Last week Ukraine's central bank imposed new capital controls in a bid to shore up the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnya.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mr Yanukovych's meeting with Russian President Putin took place against the backdrop of growing fears about the declining Ukrainian currency, the hryvnya, and the wider economy.
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Meanwhile, the protests - here against President Yanukovych and President Putin - continue in Kiev. Another mass protest is expected in Maidan square on Sunday.
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland has been embarrassed by a leaked phone conversation between her and the US envoy to Ukraine

Mr Yanukovych's meeting with Mr Putin follows talks in Kiev last Wednesday between Mr Yanukovych and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

In the face of protracted protests gripping Kiev and elsewhere, Ukraine has become an arena for a struggle for influence between traditional ally Russia and the West, say correspondents.

But a recorded phone call which emerged on Thursday has put on show differences between the US and EU.

Washington's European envoy Victoria Nuland was heard using an expletive to disparage the EU's handling of the crisis and revealing Washington's determination to influence the outcome of the Ukrainian struggle.

The conversation, apparently between Ms Nuland and the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, appeared on YouTube on Thursday.

The insult has been called "totally unacceptable" by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ms Nuland is said to have privately apologised to EU officials.

However, the US has hinted that Russia may have had a role in bugging and then leaking the conversation.

Another huge demonstration by pro-EU protesters is planned for Kiev's Maidan (Independence Square) on Sunday.

Leading Ukrainian lawmakers are then expected to meet on Monday to discuss opposition proposals to curtail presidential powers and return to a constitution the country had until 2010 that granted extended powers to parliament, said AFP news agency.

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