KIEV, Ukraine – Ukraine on Friday signed a landmark trade deal to bind itself to the European Union, a monumental step that came in defiance of months of Russian efforts to block the country from turning westward.
The agreement will have serious consequences for Ukraine’s relationship with Russia, a top Russian diplomat said after the signing ceremony in Brussels. The decision was also expected to complicate efforts to end more than two months of separatist violence in eastern Ukraine.
It was the same document that was rejected in November by Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych. That decision sparked months of protests by pro-Western Ukrainians, a crackdown by Yanukovych and his eventual ouster in February, leading to the greatest tensions between the West and Russia since the Cold War.
More than 100 protesters died in Kiev under the blue and yellow banner of the European Union, as they took to the streets to demand that Yanukovych reconsider his last-minute decision – made under heavy Russian pressure – to reject the agreement.
Hundreds more Ukrainians and dozens of Russians have died in violence in eastern Ukraine since April, when pro-Russian separatists seized government buildings and territory in an effort to align themselves with Russia rather than the European Union.
Two other former Soviet republics, Georgia and Moldova, also signed the telephone book-thick trade deals with the EU on Friday, in the face of Russian threats of tough consequences if they did so. The agreements will require them to enact economic reforms, as well as to meet EU standards for government contracting, cutting down on the corruption that has plagued all three societies since their independence.
Russia has said that it views the expansion of EU ties to its border as a Western encroachment on a region that has long been within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence. Russia has sought to enlist those countries in the Eurasian Union, its competing vision of an alliance based on values dominated by Moscow and free of Western influence.
EU leaders – along with those of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – have said the deal does not constitute a challenge to Russia.
The agreements will open the vast 28-nation EU market, with its 504 million residents, to tariff-free exports from the countries in exchange for gradual work toward bringing regulations up to European standards. Leaders in all three countries hope to follow the model of Poland and the Baltic nations, former Eastern bloc states that are now EU members and whose economies have grown significantly in the 23 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, by contrast, have struggled.
The agreement makes no promises of eventual full EU membership, a step the three countries have said they would like to take. EU leaders have been cautious about commitment to that measure, which would mean opening their labor market to the countries’ citizens. With 46 million residents, Ukraine is more populous than all but five of the EU countries.
EU leaders met after the signing ceremony to discuss whether to impose new sanctions on Russia over its conduct in Ukraine. They decided against doing so but gave Russia until Monday to push rebels toward peace.
The leaders called on the Kremlin to actively use its influence over the illegally armed groups and to stop the flow of weapons and militants across the border. That suggests they might impose further sanctions Monday unless Russia helps implement a durable cease-fire and pushes separatists to hand back captured Ukrainian border checkpoints and to release a team of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that was captured in eastern Ukraine a month ago.
The signature ceremony in Brussels took place as a temporary cease-fire in eastern Ukraine was set to expire Friday evening. Poroshenko said in Brussels that he would decide later Friday whether to extend the truce. Hostilities continued after separatist leaders agreed to the cease-fire Monday, including the Tuesday downing of a Ukrainian military helicopter, and both sides accused each other of violating the truce.