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By Luke Baker and Richard Balmforth
BRUSSELS/KIEV, Nov 25 (Reuters) - The European Union expressed strong disapproval on Monday over Russia's pressure on Ukraine to reject an EU trade deal, while police fired tear gas at pro-Europe protesters in the former Soviet republic's capital, Kiev.
Ukraine had been expected to sign a far-reaching trade and political association agreement with the EU at a summit in Vilnius on Friday. But it suddenly announced last week it had decided to seek closer trade relations with Moscow instead.
The decision followed months of Russian pressure, including threats to cut off Ukraine's gas supplies and impose trade restrictions. At the same time, Moscow has accused the European Union of putting the squeeze on Kiev, too.
Protests have since broken out on the streets of Kiev, with tens of thousands of people demonstrating in favour of closer relations with the European Union, the biggest outpouring since its pro-democracy Orange Revolution nine years ago.
In unusually firm language on Monday, the EU's two most senior officials, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, denounced Russia's actions and said the EU offer remained on the table.
"While being aware of the external pressure that Ukraine is experiencing, we believe that short term considerations should not override the long term benefits that this partnership would bring," they said in a joint statement.
"The European Union will not force Ukraine, or any other partner, to choose between the European Union or any other regional entity... We therefore strongly disapprove of the Russian position and actions in this respect."
There were further, smaller protests on Monday in Kiev, with Ukrainian police clashing with demonstrators and firing teargas to try to control the crowds.
At the end of last week, the European Union appeared minded to quietly accept Ukraine's decision to back away. But the protests - with their hallmarks of Ukraine's democracy drive of 2004-2005 - look to have spurred the EU into renewed action and a reiteration of its position.
"The offer of signing an unprecedented association agreement and a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement is still on the table," the joint EU statement read.
"It is up to Ukraine to freely decide what kind of engagement they seek with the European Union. Ukrainian citizens have shown again these last days that they fully understand and embrace the historic nature of the European association."
While it seems unlikely that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich will have another change of mind between now and the Vilnius summit, he is still expected to attend the event and will have dinner with EU leaders on Thursday night.
EU officials said that occasion might be an opportunity for heads of state and government such as Germany's Angela Merkel, Britain's David Cameron and France's Francois Hollande, to speak one-to-one with Yanukovich and convince him of the benefits of looking West to the EU, even if he doesn't budge now.
It remains unclear what Russian President Vladimir Putin said to Yanukovich to convince him to turn his back on the EU.
But diplomatic sources in Moscow, Kiev and Brussels have indicated it probably involved a combination of threats to withdraw political support, targeted economic pressure and the inducement of cheaper Russian gas for Ukraine.
Russia set up its own customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan in 2010 and wants Armenia and Ukraine, as well as other former Soviet republics, to join it. Ultimately, it sees it as a viable alternative to the 28-member European Union.
COSTS AND BENEFITS
One of the problems for Ukraine in signing the EU free-trade deal would have been the cost. While the country of 46 million people, with high debts and a fragile currency, would have enjoyed near immediate free-trade access, it would also have been obliged to adopt EU regulations in many areas.
EU officials have said Russian officials told Ukraine introducing EU requirements would have cost as much as $100 billion, while Russia cutting off trade and imposing other restrictions on Ukraine would have hurt the country to the tune $500 billion, although it is not clear over what period.
At the same time, while an EU free-trade deal might help Ukrainian business and growth over time, it is not a first step towards EU membership, the ultimate prize. And it was not clear whether signing up with the EU would have done much to bolster Yanukovich's reelection hopes in 2015, either.
One of the many issues Brussels wanted Yanukovich to resolve before signing the deal was the imprisonment of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a bitter Yanukovich rival and a potential election challenger.
Now Ukraine has backed away from the EU, there is less pressure on Yanukovich to meet demands to free Tymoshenko and end "selective justice", or to get to grips with the widespread corruption and malfeasance the EU regards as plaguing Ukraine.
The EU's statement indicates more than anything a desire to remain open to Ukraine and put an end to the sense of a zero-sum game with Russia over the vast country wedged between the two.
While there seems little prospect of Yanukovich suddenly signing up to the deal in Vilnius, it is possible he will drift back to the EU, especially if Ukrainian citizens demand it.
"The EU stands ready to be more open and more supportive to those who are willing to engage in reforms and modernisation," Van Rompuy and Barroso said.
"Stronger relations with the European Union do not come at the expense of relations between our Eastern partners and their other neighbours, such as Russia. The Eastern Partnership is conceived as a win-win where we all stand to gain." (Writing by Luke Baker; additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Natalya Zinets in Kiev)
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