The European Union on Tuesday called off a key meeting with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich over the jailing of his arch-rival and opposition leader, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Ukraine jailed Tymoshenko last week for seven years for abuse of office while she was prime minister after a trial that the EU and the United States say was politically motivated.
Yanukovich had been due to meet European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and the president of the EU council of member states, Herman Van Rompuy, on Thursday for talks aimed at advancing the European integration course of his ex-Soviet country.
But the EU postponed the meeting after the Kiev leadership failed to heed calls for moves to free her and following harsh words by Yanukovich, in which he said he would not "go begging" to Brussels.
"The meeting is postponed to a later occasion when the conditions will be more conducive to making progress in bilateral relations," said a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
The step was meant to underscore the need for Ukraine "to make progress in ensuring the rule of law and independence of the judiciary," she said.
The Yanukovich leadership has so far failed to respond to entreaties by the EU to amend the original charge against Tymoshenko to make it an administrative offence rather than a criminal one -- thus allowing her to go free.
And despite the outcry in the West over the Tymoshenko trial, Ukraine's state security service opened a new criminal case against her on 13 October alleging her involvement in a "criminal conspiracy" 15 years ago to embezzle state funds through gas purchases from Russia.
Yanukovich has set joining the European mainstream as a foreign policy objective while forging strong relations with Ukraine's powerful neighbour, Russia, on whom it relies for strategic supplies of gas.
His talks on Thursday were to relate to a long-awaited association agreement which Ukraine wants to be signed by the end of the year.
The creation of a free trade zone, a key part of this agreement, holds huge opportunities for Ukraine, an exporter of steel, chemicals and grain, and for the industrialists who are important backers of Yanukovich.
But in unusually harsh comments on Monday, Yanukovich indicated he was not ready to bend to pressure over Tymoshenko and denied charges of political meddling in her trial.
"It is not a question of whether Ukraine or Europe likes the sentence or not. It is a question of the rule of law. There is a court that takes decisions which must be respected."
Referring to the meeting that had been set for Thursday, Yanukovich told foreign news organisations: "I am not going to go begging to anyone. If there is a need to meet someone -- I am ready. If not, then I'll just continue on my way. We (and the EU) are partners and we have mutual obligations."
Referring specifically to the association agreement, he said: "If Europe is not ready for this for whatever reason, or if Ukraine is not ready, then the decision can be made later."
Last week some members of the European Parliament called for a suspension of talks on a wide-ranging pact with Kiev on closer trade and political ties, which had been expected to be concluded this year.
Ashton said last week the EU should keep negotiating the trade pact but not sign it unless Kiev showed a commitment to shared values.
A European Commission spokeswoman on Tuesday confirmed this was still EU policy, but added: "We are committed in our cooperation with Ukraine and work goes on at a technical level.
"But regarding the actual signature, this is going to depend whether the values . are maintained as they are at the very heart of our cooperation with the countries of Eastern Europe."
In Kiev, Yanukovich's supporters in parliament said they would block any moves to "decriminalise" the charge against Tymoshenko to allow her to go free.
"We cannot accept this pressure from Brussels and EU leaders. We cannot violate our laws which these leaders are trying to push us to do," Oleksander Efremov, leader of Yanukovich's Regions party faction, said.