Russia's top diplomat traveled to Ukraine on Monday in an effort to reshape relations after a new, Western-leaning leadership took office in this ex-Soviet republic.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was scheduled to meet Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Foreign Minister Borys Tarasiuk and other top officials.
On the eve of the trip, Lavrov said Russia should accept the efforts of former Soviet republics seeking to mold their foreign policies separately from its own and said that Moscow now considers Ukraine and Georgia outside its orbit.
"As far as the transformation of these countries from the 'near abroad' to the 'abroad' is concerned, we view them as absolutely sovereign, absolutely equal states in the new geopolitical architecture," Lavrov said in a televised statement.
The statement appeared to suggest that the two countries were no longer among the ex-Soviet republics Russia considers its natural allies, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Russia has watched warily as Ukraine and Georgia have sought to follow in the footsteps of the three Baltic countries, deepening ties with Western organizations such as the European Union and NATO and moving out from under Russia's shadow.
Although he repeatedly said he wants Ukraine to become a full member of the EU and eventually join NATO, Yushchenko has reiterated that "Russia remains an eternal and strategic partner."
Among the issues to be discussed during Lavrov's meetings with Tarasiuk will be a free-trade zone, final resolution of a dispute involving the Kerch Strait connecting the Azov and Black Seas, the status of Russia's Black Sea naval fleet, which is based in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, and the two countries' cooperation in the energy sphere. Russia is Europe's largest single supplier of natural gas, most of which is transported through Ukrainian pipelines.
Rescuers found the pilot of one of the two Su-34 fighters that had collided in midair in the Far East on January 18