Vladimir Putin said that a free trade deal between the European Union and Ukraine that was controversially scrapped last week would have been a "major threat" to the Russian economy.
    
Ukraine admitted for the first time on Tuesday that Moscow had asked Kiev to delay signing a broad political and free trade pact that would have opened the former Soviet state's path to EU membership. The EU has accused Russia of pressuring its smaller neighbour not to sign the deal at a summit in Vilnius this week.
    
EU President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso have said they "strongly disapprove" of Russia's actions, prompting Putin to urge European leaders to tone down their criticism.
    
"I ask our friends in Brussels to hold back on the sharp words," Putin told reporters during a visit to Italy. "Do we have to choke entire sectors of our economy for them to like us?"
    
Last week Ukraine's government stunned the West by halting all preparations for the deal and proposing a three-way commission with Russia and the EU on trade.
    
The shock decision has sparked the largest protests to hit the ex-Soviet country since the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004, with demonstrators taking to the streets in the capital Kiev and western Ukraine.
    
Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych has called for calm after at times violent mass demonstrations that have seen riot police fire tear gas at protesters who hurled traffic cones and rocks at security forces. On Tuesday he said that the government wanted further negotiations on the terms of the EU pact.
    
"As soon as we reach a level that is comfortable for us, when it meets our interests, when we agree on normal terms, then we will be talking about signing," Yanukovych said in a televised interview.
    
"When that will be - soon or not so soon - time will tell. I would like that time to come as soon as possible. We've decided, we have no questions about that, but as far as terms are concerned, it's a matter of principle."

In a video address to the nation yesterday, the president said Ukraine's battered economy could not afford the free trade deal with the EU. 

(Agencies)

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