Ukraine must choose on its own between deeper trade ties with Russia or the European Union, and Brussels should hold off from "harsh statements," Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Tuesday, dpa reported.
His comments came two days ahead of a summit that the EU is to host in Vilnius with Ukraine and five other post-Soviet countries.
"Ukraine must make the decision itself," Putin said at the end of an Italy-Russia summit in Trieste, Italy. If it were to sign a deal with Brussels, Kiev would have to drop free-trade arrangements with Russia "within two months," he added.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych explained his position in a wide-ranging television interview, excerpts of which were released late Tuesday.
He said the country was not yet ready for a partnership with the EU and therefore rejected signing off on an association agreement. That would happen only when Ukraine was economically stronger, he indicated.
"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 talk about signing," Yanukovych said.
In an address to the nation late Monday, Yanukovych vowed to ensure "European standards" in his country.
"Today I would like to stress that there is no alternative to building a society of European standards in Ukraine. And my policy on this path always was and remains consistent," Yanukovych said. "Reforms we are carrying out are a confirmation that we are following the European path."
In Kiev, Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov had previously said that the government intended to start trade talks with Russia in December.
"Our main aim is to restore normal trade relations with Russia," he was quoted as saying by Russia's Interfax news agency.
Less than an hour after Azarov's comment about the trade talks, Russia's Consumer Protection Agency said that it would soon lift a ban on Ukrainian confectionery.
Moscow's ban on products of the Roshen manufacturer was imposed in August and widely seen as political punishment, because the company's owner, Petro Poroshenko, is an outspoken pro-European Ukrainian lawmaker.
The EU and Russia have traded accusations of pressuring Ukraine.
On Monday, EU President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Ukraine had halted preparations for an association agreement with the bloc - which was on the agenda for Vilnius - on Moscow's insistence.
"I ask our friends in Brussels - my personal good friends in the EU Commission - to refrain from such harsh statements. Should we choke entire sectors of our economy only to please them?" Putin said.
Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused the EU of fomenting political unrest in Ukraine.
By upping the pressure on Kiev, Brussels was interfering in its domestic affairs, "which only further incites the opposition-minded part of the Ukrainian population to carry out protests and illegal actions against Ukraine's legitimate authorities," the ministry said.
Azarov said that an agreement with the EU might be signed next year, but only if tripartite talks with Russia and the European Union are successful.
The EU has rejected such talks, which were suggested by Putin last week. He repeated the proposal in Trieste.
Meanwhile, large pro-European protests in central and western Ukraine took place for a fifth day. Hundreds of protesters had spent the night in the centre of Kiev. They were joined by students in the capital and the western city of Lviv.
On Monday, Ukraine's imprisoned former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko declared a hunger strike until the president signs the EU agreement.