updated 5/24/2009 5:37:12 PM ET 2009-05-24T21:37:12

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned the West on Sunday not to meddle in relations between Russia and Ukraine, according to remarks cited by state-run news agencies.

After laying a wreath at the grave of Anton Denikin, who fought against the Red Army after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and is now cast by the Kremlin as a patriot, Putin urged journalists to read Denikin's diaries, RIA-Novosti and ITAR-Tass reported.

"He has a discussion there about Big Russia and Little Russia — Ukraine," they quoted Putin as saying. "He says that nobody should be permitted to interfere in relations between us, they have always been the business of Russia itself."

Portions of present-day Ukraine were part of pre-Revolutionary Russia and were sometimes called "Little Russia" or "Lesser Russia," while the bulk of the country was known as "Great Russia." Many Ukrainians find the terms offensive and misleading.

Putin's remarks came as the dominant Russian Orthodox Church called for Slavic unity amid celebrations honoring Saints Cyril and Methodius, considered founding fathers of a common Slavic culture.

Comments could anger Ukrainians
But the comments could anger Ukrainians and increase their wariness about Moscow's intentions toward the former Soviet republic.

Ukraine has been independent since 1991, when the Russian-dominated Soviet Union collapsed. But Putin's remarks seemed to suggest that Moscow's close historical ties with Ukraine means gives it a measure of influence that other countries cannot claim.

The remarks come amid competition between Russia and the West for influence in Ukraine.

Russian officials have said they are determined to keep Ukraine out of NATO. For some Ukrainians, Russia's war last year against pro-Western Georgia was a chilling suggestion of how far Moscow is willing to go.

Russian nationalists want to regain the Crimean Peninsula, which was made part of Ukrainian Soviet Republic by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s. There is tension between Russia and Ukraine over Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which Ukrainian leaders have said they will evict from the Crimean port of Sevastopol when the current lease runs out in 2017.

Denikin, who died in exile in the United States in 1947, was reburied in 2005 in the cemetery Moscow's historic Donskoy Monastery.

Putin's visit to his grave was a reflection of how the prime minister, a longtime KGB officer who was president from 2000-2008, has celebrated individuals and images from both the Soviet era and czarist times in a drive to instill pride in Russians.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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