MOSCOW, Russia -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin encouraged Ukraine on Thursday to join Moscow-driven efforts to integrate the economies of the biggest post-Soviet republics into one trading bloc.
Ukraine has sought closer ties with Russia since the election of Viktor Yanukovich in February 2010, abandoning the goal of joining NATO and extending Russia's lease of a military base on the Black Sea.
"In the last 15 years we have seen the first real steps towards integration and the creation of a new union between our three states: Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus," Putin said when asked whether Ukraine and Russia should unite again.
"If our Ukrainian colleagues see some sort of benefit in joining these processes, if Ukraine was to join these processes in some form or another, then of course it would be a powerful, important boost," Putin said at his annual question-and-answer session with the Russian people.
Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan are already members of a customs union and signed a macroeconomic policy coordination agreement last month, an important part of their drive to create a free trade zone in 2012.
But joining Russia-dominated efforts could hamper a deal with the European Union because the customs union has a common foreign trade policy with tight links to Russia.
Putin, a 58-year-old former KGB spy who watched from a posting in East Germany as the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, has sought to claw back some of the clout Russia lost when the Soviet empire broke up.
"He who doesn't regret the collapse of the Soviet Union has no heart, but he who wants it restored in the original has no brains," Putin said, repeating one of his most notable comments.