Ukraine's embattled President Viktor Yanukovych returned to protest-hit Kiev yesterday after holding private talks with his Russian counterpart and ally Vladimir Putin about a suspended Moscow bailout loan. The late Friday chat on the sidelines of the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Russia'sBlack Sea resort of Sochi came amid intensifying pressure from the opposition on Yanukovych to cede some of his broad powers and appoint a new pro-Western government. Neither Russian nor Ukrainian officials disclosed the details of the two leaders' conversation except to say that it was brief and held at Sochi's Fisht stadium where the Games' opening ceremony was held. Yanukovych had been expected to discuss with Putin the fate of a $15-billion Russian bailout whose delivery has been effectively frozen pending the formation of a new government. The ex-Soviet nation of 46 million was thrown into its worst crisis since independence in November when Yanukovych ditched an historic EU pact under Russian pressure in a stunning reversal that sparked deadly protests. The sustained protests that followed have since then played out as a titanic struggle for the country's future between Russia and the West. Yanukovych must now decide whether to submit to protesters' demands by taking a more conciliatory approach toward a new agreement with the European Union a possibility that prompted Russia to suspend its loan after issuing just one instalment of $3 billion in December. But Ukraine's tattered economy is in ever-growing need of assistance amid sliding domestic production and dwindling foreign reserves. Moscow is already demanding the repayment of a $3.3-billion debt that Ukraine has piled up since last year for Russian natural gas imports on which the country's industries and households depend. Putin's bailout would slash the future price of Russian gas imports by a third — a huge relief for the economy that analysts believe should help revive stalled growth. But Russian Economy Minister Anton Siluanov warned yesterday that Moscow would need at least a partial down payment on the outstanding gas bill before the terms of its Ukrainian package are restored. The protracted crisis has seen Ukraine's borrowing costs spike and the currency lose nearly 10 percent of its value as frightened consumers rush to cut their losses by stocking up on dollars and euros. Several banks have reported hard currency shortages and the central bank on Friday was forced to impose capital controls and move the Ukrainian hryvnia's official rate to 8.7 from 7.9 per dollar its first shift of the peg since July 2012. The global ratings agency Fitch became the latest to downgrade Ukraine's standing on Friday when it moved its long-term foreign currency debt just one step above default.