By Laura Smith-Spark
Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych is to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin Tuesday in Moscow, amid continuing protests in Ukraine over the prospect of closer economic ties with its neighbor.
Yanukovych has said he will only sign economic agreements that restore normal trading relations with Russia, Ukraine's largest trading partner.
But Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told Ukraine's national broadcaster, Inter TV, Sunday that Ukraine and Russia plan to approve a road map to improved trade relations while Yanukovych is there.
After months of talks, Yanukovych in November spurned an EU trade deal in favor of closer economic ties with Moscow, sparking mass protests in Kiev that have paralyzed the capital's center.
A statement on the presidential website Monday cited Ukrainian official Serhiy Lyovochkin as saying Putin and Yanukovych would focus on bilateral trade, economic and transport matters in their meeting Tuesday, with special attention paid to "further development of cross-border cooperation between Ukraine and Russia."
Azarov said he hoped an agreement could also be reached on gas commerce, which would hopefully provide a solution for Ukraine's unprofitable gas transportation system.
However, he rejected claims that Ukraine is leaning toward joining Russia and other former Soviet republics in a Customs Union.
"These are speculations. None of the papers we have prepared are in any way related to the Customs Union," he said.
Meanwhile, demonstrators opposed to closer ties with Russia have continued to stand their ground, camping out in freezing temperatures in Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan, and barricading surrounding streets.
They were out in their tens of thousands Sunday -- the fourth weekend in a row -- urging their leaders to mend ties with Europe.
EU foreign ministers held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Monday in Brussels, Belgium.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Moscow should not fear "a detrimental effect on Russia" as a result of Ukraine's signature of the EU deal.
"I don't believe that the crisis in Ukraine should have a negative impact on our relations with Russia. It does mean though that we have to look very seriously about the way in which countries make their decision; and are entitled to make their decision," she said.
Ahead of the talks, Ashton told reporters she believed the bloc could work with Yanukovych on Kiev's concerns, voiced since the Eastern European country backpedaled on signing the Association Agreement.
"We are very concerned when we look at some of the things that are being said, and my purpose in talking to President Yanukovych was to discover what these short-term economic issues are that have prevented him from signing," Ashton said.
"I feel that we can work with him to resolve those. Some of them can be done through the support of the European Union, others through financial institutions, some of them through the private sector. All of them are possible."
Stefan Fule, European commissioner for enlargement and European neighborhood policy, said a day earlier on Twitter that efforts were being halted amid growing doubts that any deal could be done with Kiev.
Ukraine, a key transit region for Russian gas going to Western Europe, desperately needs a cash injection.
Azarov last week told a government meeting that Ukraine was still open to signing the European integration deal, if the European Union would agree to provide financial assistance to Ukraine of around 20 billion euros ($27.5 billion).
Some in Europe have accused Moscow of using strong-arm tactics to try to influence Ukraine's course, but Russia denies that charge.
The tumult in Ukraine goes to the heart of its future ties with Russia and the rest of Europe.
Ukraine is split between pro-European regions in the west and a more Russia-oriented east.
The protests have unfolded since November 21, when Yanukovych changed his stance on the EU trade pact, which had been years in the making.
The demonstrators say an EU agreement would open borders to trade and set the stage for modernization and inclusion.
CNN's Marie-Louise Gumuchian contributed to this report.
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