KIEV, Ukraine (AP) _ The Russian prime minister pressed Ukraine's president today to resolve his country's $3 billion debt to Russia for oil and other energy supplies.

The issue of the debt has troubled attempts by the two cash-strapped former Soviet republics to revive trade that has shrunk by nearly a third since last year's economic crisis in Russia.

``Russia and Ukraine are strategic partners and our relations must not cool down,'' Russia's Sergei Stepashin said before entering a meeting with President Leonid Kuchma at his country residence outside Ukraine's capital, Kiev.

``We must find a decision on debts. It's been deadlocked for the past three or four years,'' Stepashin said.

The Russian premier, in Ukraine for three days, is also due to visit the Black Sea Fleet base in the Crimean city of Sevastopol on Saturday.

An agreement allowing Russian ships to be stationed in Ukraine largely resolved a long dispute between the two countries over division of the rusting Soviet-era fleet. But a few small disputes remain over the Russian fleet's activities in Ukraine.

Moscow estimates the total bill owed by Ukraine for Russian oil, gas and electricity at $3 billion. Like many other former Soviet republics, Ukraine has been hard-pressed to meet payments for energy once guaranteed under the Soviet government. Often countries have worked out barter deals with Russia.

Kuchma in a Cabinet meeting Thursday blamed several ministries for the continuing decline in Ukraine's own industries. He fired his agriculture minister for failing to supply farms with enough fuel and equipment for the harvest season, the presidential press service said. No replacement was named.

Agriculture in Ukraine, once the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, has been in steep decline since the collapse of state-supported farm system.

More than 90 percent of farming businesses in Ukraine were loss-making in 1998. Government efforts to privatize farms or otherwise improve their performance have failed.