Kiev - Ukraine's embattled President Viktor Yanukovych leaves behind huge anti-government rallies on Tuesday to negotiate deals with Russia's Vladimir Putin that protesters fear will ruin their EU integration dreams.
The high-stakes Kremlin meeting comes two days after the European Union suspended partnership talks with Ukraine for a pact that had been aimed at pulling the ex-Soviet country out of Russia's orbit for the first time.
Brussels officials cited Yanukovych's continued courtship of Russia for their decision and demanded a firmer commitment to EU standards on political freedoms and economic reforms.
"Ministers confirmed again today the European Union's readiness to sign the (agreement) as soon as Ukraine is ready and the relevant conditions are met," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on Monday after a ministerial meeting in Brussels.
"We believe that the agreement provides the best way to address Ukraine's short-term economic challenges," Ashton said.
But Yanukovych will instead be hoping to win a multi-billion-dollar loan from Russia that his critics view as Putin's reward for Kiev's U-turn on the EU pact.
"A Russian loan can help Yanukovych keep power," said Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.
"And the Kremlin is ready to help him because this meets Putin's strategic interests," the analyst said.
Yanukovych's abrupt decision last month to spurn the EU Association Agreement with Brussels sparked the fiercest anti-government rallies since the 2004 Orange Revolution that first nudged Ukraine on a westward path.
But it has also exposed the deeply embedded cultural fault lines that run in the nation of 46 million, between the nationalist and Ukrainian-speaking west of the country and the more Russified east aligned with Moscow.
The Ukrainian government has attempted to organise counter-rallies in Kiev by bussing in thousands of people from eastern regions where Yanukovych enjoys broader support.
But those demonstrations have been dwarfed by the pro-EU protest - a festive gathering that runs around the clock and features rock concerts on the same square that was at the heart of the 2004 pro-democracy revolt.
Events in recent days suggest Yanukovych is cracking under the pressure and looking for a way out of the deepest political crisis of his nearly four-year rule.
He held an inconclusive meeting with three top protest leaders on Friday and followed that up by sacking senior officials whom he held responsible for a violent crackdown on protesters at the end of last month.
His own ruling Regions Party on Monday also encouraged Yanukovych to conduct a major government overhaul that could possibly take some steam out of the protest movement.
But the Ukrainian leader has firmly rejected the opposition's main demand that Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resign immediately and fresh presidential and parliamentary polls be held.
Cheaper gas and Russian loans
Yanukovych hopes to sign a series of deals with Putin that include an agreement for cheaper Russian natural gas shipments and a multi-billion-dollar loan aimed at righting Ukraine's wobbly economy.
But demonstrators fear that Yanukovych will in fact be putting Ukraine on a path toward future membership in a Russian-led Customs Union that Putin hopes to build into a rival to the 28-nation EU bloc.
The Ukrainian government denies that a Customs Union deal will be signed on Tuesday. But this has failed to allay the protest movement's fears.
Nationalist opposition leader Oleg Tyagnibok said his Svoboda (Freedom) party had learned that Putin planned to reward Yanukovych for delaying the EU deal's signature with a $5bn loan.
He said Russia would also lower the gas price it charges the Ukrainian state gas company to $200-$300 per thousand cubic metres from the more than $400 that it pays now.
"That is the baggage Yanukovych is taking with him to Moscow," Tyagnibok told reporters.
Kremlin adviser Andrei Belousov confirmed that Russia may give Ukraine a much-needed loan but provided no other details.