Brussels: European Union foreign ministers on Monday sought to reassure their Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that a possible partnership deal with Ukraine would not undermine Moscow`s interests.
At talks with Lavrov over lunch in Brussels, "we made it perfectly clear that Ukraine, after years of negotiations... should sign" a landmark political and economic deal with the 28-nation bloc, said the EU`s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.
The bloc`s ministers also made clear "that signing it would not have a detrimental effect on Russia in any way," she added at the close of a day of talks dominated by Kiev`s surprise decision late November to ditch the deal days before its planned signature.
There were "no contradictions between possibly accepting this partnership agreement and entertaining good relations with Russia," said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
EU diplomats described the talks between the Russian minister and his EU counterparts as "very open and frank" -- diplomatic language for a blunt discussion.
Lavrov himself emerged from the talks saying there was "a common agreement that everyone should respect the sovereignty of each nation" and "allow people to make a free choice".
The Russian minister had argued that an EU-Ukraine free trade deal would undermine the Russian economy by enabling a massive flow of EU products via Ukraine, said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn.
Turning east rather than west, Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych travels to Moscow on Tuesday. His decision last month to scrap the historic EU accord sparked the largest demonstrations in his ex-Soviet country in a decade.
The EU ministers reiterated the bloc`s willingness to strike the deal with Ukraine, while saying the ball clearly was in Kiev`s court.
"We of course want that Ukraine sign the Association Agreement, there is still some hope for that," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on arriving for the talks in Brussels.
Sweden`s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, a key player in efforts to bolster ties with former Soviet satellites on Europe`s eastern fringe, accused Yanukovych of "double-speak".
"He says one thing one day and another thing another day," he said.
"If there`s a clear message from Kiev we`re ready to sign tomorrow," he added.
One minister after another urged Ukraine to resist pressure from Russia, a day after the EU`s enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fuele, said Brussels was halting talks on how to implement the agreement because of lack of clarity from Kiev.
"The EU door remains open but clearly they`re not able to walk through it," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
"It`s important they`re able to, without pressure," Hague added.