A woman wrapped in a Ukrainian flag and her daughter in an EU flag at a gathering in Kiev on Friday to celebrate the signing of the EU-Ukraine trade agreement. (AFP)
Brussels, June 27: Seven months after Ukraine’s former President Viktor Yanukovich rejected a sweeping trade deal with the EU and set off protests that drove him from power, Ukraine’s new leader today accepted the pact, which Russia has bitterly opposed as a threat to its own economic and strategic interests in the former Soviet Union.
The news agency Interfax in Moscow quoted Russia’s deputy foreign minister as warning that “serious consequences” would follow the signing of a deal that Moscow has long worked to derail.
The signing followed months of upheaval in Ukraine that split the country and set off an armed, separatist rebellion in the east that has yet to be resolved. While a moment of triumph for the EU, it represented a setback of sorts for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who considered Ukraine an integral part of Russia and was determined not to let it slide into the West’s orbit.
With Georgia and Moldova signing similar agreements, Putin was facing the prospect of three former Soviet republics’ slipping out of Russia’s sphere of interest. He was able to reclaim southern Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, with its strategic naval base and considerable energy resources, but at the cost of provoking economic sanctions and capital flight that has dragged down Russia’s economy.
Putin retains enormous influence in Ukraine, where the new President, Petro O. Poroshenko, and western leaders accuse Putin of organising and arming separatist rebels who control significant sections of the country’s east. The US and Europe have swept aside Russian denials of a hand in the violence and have repeatedly called on Putin to halt the traffic — something he is unlikely to do if Russia wants to display its displeasure over the trade pact with Brussels.
Despite threats this week from secretary of state John Kerry of new and tougher sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine, EU leaders announced within hours of signing the economic accord that they would not support such a step. Europe, like the US, has limited its sanctions to an asset freeze and travel ban against a narrow group of Russian political and military figures involved in the March annexation of Crimea.
But the pact noted that preparatory work was underway for additional sanctions and set out conditions, including the return of Ukrainian border posts seized by pro-Russian fighters.
With many countries strongly opposed to sanctions that would damage their own economic interests in Russia, European leaders have been divided on how hard to push Russia over Ukraine.
The European officials also expressed support for a peace plan for eastern Ukraine put forward this week by Poroshenko, and suggested that blame for frequent violations of a cease-fire announced on Tuesday and extended today lay not with Ukraine but with pro-Russian militants.
Poroshenko, a confectionary mogul who won Ukraine’s presidential elections in May to fill a post left vacant when Yanukovich fled the country in February, signed the so-called Association Agreement at the Brussels headquarters of the EU on the sidelines of a summit.