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EU drops dinner with Putin to show 'not business as usual'

President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting in Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow January 15, 2014. REUTERS/Mikhail Metzel/RIA
President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting in Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow January 15, 2014. REUTERS/Mikhail Metzel/RIA

By Adrian Croft

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union has canceled a traditional dinner with President Vladimir Putin at an EU-Russia summit in Brussels later this month to show there is no "business as usual" after a tug-of-war with Moscow over Ukraine.

Putin will visit Brussels on January 28 for his twice-yearly summit with the EU's top officials, despite relations being under strain. The summit is usually over two days but will be over in one this time, without the dinner on the night before.

Tensions arose late last year after the EU accused Russia of putting undue pressure on Ukraine to reject closer ties with Brussels and forge tighter relations with Moscow instead. Kiev stunned the EU in November by pulling back at the last minute from signing a wide-ranging trade and cooperation agreement.

The summit will now consist of a few hours of talks between Putin, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and their key advisers, followed by a working lunch, EU diplomats said.

One diplomat said the EU had suggested the change in format as "a way to be able to speak a bit more frankly, to have a more strategic discussion, instead of the normal theatrical summit."

The change was also partly to show "it is not business as usual", he said.

Moscow and Brussels traded accusations of interference in Ukraine's affairs after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich backed out of the trade and cooperation agreement with the EU.

Instead it signed a deal to get financial assistance and cheaper gas from Russia, its former Soviet overseer.

The volte-face led to weeks of pro-EU demonstrations in Kiev and a crackdown by Yanukovich against protesters.

Yanukovich's supporters pushed a sweeping law through parliament on Thursday intended to tighten rules on demonstrations.

While EU officials have repeatedly made their displeasure at Russia's actions clear, Europe remains strongly dependent on Russia for energy, while trade between the EU and Russia totaled 336 billion euros in 2012 - important to both blocs.

At the same time, the EU has opened a World Trade Organization dispute with Russia over allegations it illegally protects its carmakers and has opened an anti-trust probe of Russian energy giant Gazprom.

The EU will use the summit with Russia to talk "honestly and frankly" about problems in the relationship, including raising human rights issues, the diplomat said.

In an attempt to improve Russia's image on human rights before hosting next month's winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin has freed members of the Pussy Riot punk group, dropped charges against Greenpeace activists arrested in a protest over Arctic oil drilling and released former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of his best-known opponents, after 10 years in prison.

Asked if Russia was ready to discuss Ukraine with EU leaders, Vladimir Chizhov, Moscow's ambassador to the EU, said this week: "I am pretty confident President Putin will be perfectly ready to discuss any issue that might be of interest to presidents Van Rompuy and Barroso."

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