KIEV - Outraged Ukrainians rallied in central Kiev on Saturday after President Viktor Yanukovych discussed a new strategic partnership agreement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin upon rejecting a historic EU deal.

Several thousand supporters of Western integration braved swirling winds and a heavy snowfall to maintain control of the capital’s iconic Independence Square for the seventh successive day. Some volunteers wrapped themselves in wool blankets as they handed out breakfast from a makeshift kitchen to the multifaceted crowd. Others swept up garbage around a few dozen tents set up between barricades on the sprawling square. Protest organisers expect up to 300,000 to turn out on Sunday for the largest demonstration since the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution first nudged the former Soviet nation of 46 million closer to the West. The embattled Ukrainian president held unannounced talks with Putin in Russia on Friday after completing a mission to China aimed at drumming up backing for his cash-strapped government. Yanukovych’s official website said the meeting at Putin’s Black Sea retreat in Sochi — their fourth in just over a month — focused on “trade and economic cooperation ... and preparation for the future treaty on strategic partnership”.

But some reports said the two also talked about Russia providing Ukraine with billions of dollars in loans and cheap gas in return for its decision to spurn an EU trade agreement that would have opened the way to its membership in the 28-nation bloc.

The political crisis has dealt a heavy blow to Ukraine’s already struggling economy amid growing speculation that Kiev may fail to service billions of dollars in debt and other payments that come due by the end of 2014.

Billions in Russian aid

Ukraine rejected the EU deal last month citing both the threat of Russian trade sanctions and the EU’s failure to deliver billions of dollars in compensatory aid.

Putin for his part is keen to pull Ukraine into a Moscow-led Customs Union that already includes Belarus and Kazakhstan and which he hopes to build into a rival to the Brussels-based bloc.

Kiev’s respected Zerkalo Nedeli weekly cited a Russian source as saying Putin had offered Yanukovych a loan of at least $12 billion aimed at propping up Ukraine’s economy and making sure it does not seek help in the West.

The report also said Russia was willing to provide discounted natural gas shipments to a Ukrainian energy firm run by a powerful tycoon whose support is vital to Yanukovych.

The Economist’s senior editor Edward Lucas — known for writing books critical of the Kremlin — for his part tweeted that his sources said Yanukovych had actually signed a firm agreement with Putin providing Ukraine with an upfront payment of more that $5 billion (3.6 billion euros).

Lucas added that Yanukovych had further assured Putin of Ukraine’s participation in the Customs Union starting in 2015.

A top Ukrainian government source firmly rejected reports that anything specific had been agreed in Sochi.

“There was only a discussion,” the senior source told AFP.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also told Russian media that “Ukraine’s possible membership in the Customs Union was not discussed at the Sochi meeting.”

But rumours of a possible deal spread quickly across Kiev and prompted opposition leaders to warn of grave consequences if they proved to be true.

“Sunday’s protest can result in a very tragic ending for our country if (Yanukovych) really did sell out Ukraine,” parliament’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) opposition party leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said early Saturday.

Kiev police pulled up extra security forces to the country’s main television centre on Saturday to ensure that government figures who go inside for interviews do not come under attack.

Tymoshenko halts hunger strike

Ukraine’s jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko has called on Washington and the European Union to impose sanctions against both Yanukovych and his family for rejecting protesters’ EU integration demands.

The 2004 Orange Revolution co-leader on Friday ended an 11-day hunger strike launched in protest at the rejection of the EU deal on November 25.

Tymoshenko’s party chief Yatsenyuk and his two opposition protest co-leaders — the nationalist Oleg Tyagnybok and world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko — have made the government’s resignation and snap presidential elections their main demands.