Dealing a defiant blow to the Kremlin, President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine signed a long-delayed trade pact with Europe on Friday that Moscow had bitterly opposed. He then declared he would like his country to one day become a full member of the European Union.
In so doing, Ukraine’s new leader, a billionaire confectionary magnate, has in effect doubled down on a risky bet on the West that has cost his country hundreds of lives, the loss of the Crimean peninsula to Russia and triggered a low-level civil war in its eastern border region.
By signing the trade pact at the Brussels headquarters of the European Union, Mr. Poroshenko revived a deal whose rejection last November by his predecessor, Viktor F. Yanukovych, set off months of pro-European protests in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, and pushed the West into its biggest test of wills with Russia since the end of the Cold War.
The unrest toppled Mr. Yanukovych and drove pro-Russian activists in Crimea and also the eastern region of Donetsk to demand annexation by Russia.
“This is a really historic date for Ukraine,” Mr. Poroshenko, who won Ukraine’s presidential elections in May to fill a post left vacant when Mr. Yanukovych fled to Russia in February, told a news conference in Brussels.
In a dig at Mr. Yanukovych, he said he had signed the agreement with the same pen that his toppled predecessor would have used to sign the same pact, before he changed his mind under pressure from Moscow and set up his own downfall.
The conclusion of the so-called Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine marked a severe setback for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and his oft-repeated goal of reasserting Russian influence in the “near abroad,” Moscow’s term for the territories of the former Soviet Union.
“The big loser in all this is Putin,” said Amanda Paul, a researcher at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels research group. “He has gone out of his way to create problems internally in Ukraine but only pushed Ukraine further into the arms of the West than it ever would have gone before. It totally backfired for Putin.”
Moldova and Georgia, two other former Soviet lands that Moscow had pressured not to stray too far from its orbit, also signed agreements with the European Union on Friday. In Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, citizens celebrated with a large public concert, which was broadcast on all major domestic television channels.
There was jubilation as well in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, after the signing of the agreement. By late afternoon on Friday, several hundred people had gathered in Independence Square, the focal point of months of street protests, many carrying blue balloons with yellow paper stars affixed to them — replicating the European Union flag — and released them into the air.
After weeks of statements by Mr. Poroshenko vowing to seal the agreement, the Kremlin was well-prepared and immediately began to lay the groundwork for retaliatory measures, including the withdrawal of preferential treatment for Ukrainian exports to Russia under prior agreements between former Soviet republics.
Within minutes of the signing ceremony, the news agency Interfax quoted Russia’s deputy foreign minister as warning that “serious consequences” would follow. The remark was an ominous sign of the vexation caused in Moscow by the tilt toward Europe of lands that Russia, first under czarist and then Soviet leaders, for centuries considered its own.
In Moscow, Mr. Putin blamed the months of crisis in Ukraine on Western leaders, saying they had forced Kiev to choose between Russia and the European Union.
“The acute crisis in this neighboring country seriously troubles us,” Mr. Putin said after a ceremony to receive the credentials of foreign diplomats. “The anti-constitutional coup in Kiev and attempts to artificially impose a choice between Europe and Russia on the Ukrainian people have pushed society toward a split and painful confrontation.”
Though spurned, Moscow retains enormous influence in Ukraine. It reminded Kiev of this earlier this month by suspending deliveries of natural gas following a long-running dispute over price. Russia has denied any hand in the violence in eastern Ukraine but has been accused by the West of supporting pro-Russians rebels with guns, money and manpower from across the border in Russia.
Given the ferocity of the Kremlin’s campaign to prevent completion of the accord between Ukraine and Europe, the reaction by senior officials on Friday was relatively muted, reflecting not only acceptance of the inevitability of Mr. Poroshenko’s signing but also the changed circumstances following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, where it has a strategically important naval base.
“In the Kremlin, they are calming down and trying to assess the results of this frenzied state of affairs over the last couple of months,” said Konstantin Sonin, vice rector of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “I think we make too much rationalization of what the Kremlin does. I think they were very much driven by events.”
One of Mr. Putin’s major objections to closer political and economic relations between Ukraine and the West was widely understood to be a concern about NATO expansion, and the risk that would pose to Russia’s military interests in the Crimean peninsula.
Russia has long viewed the European Union as a stalking horse for NATO but, in a move that could help allay such concerns, NATO foreign ministers decided in Brussels earlier this week that an alliance summit in September will not approve offering Georgia a formal step to membership.
There is no chance of the European Union admitting Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova as members any time soon. Public opinion in Europe is hostile to any further expansion of a 28-nation bloc that is already widely seen as too big and too unwieldy.
All the same, Europe’s allure to so many people in former Soviet territories has infuriated Moscow, not the least because it contrasts so starkly with the cool reception given Mr. Putin’s efforts to form a rival economic bloc, the Eurasian Union, which is due to start up next year. It so far has only three takers, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Far from concluding a period of tumult, the completion of the trade deal, which still needs approval from the Ukrainian Parliament, could further stoke tensions both inside Ukraine and between Moscow and the West.
Senior Russian officials quickly began warning that Russia’s businesses and economy could suffer, as their markets could be flooded with low-cost goods from Europe that skirt tariffs by first being shipped through Ukraine, which will be exempt from most European duties. Other experts have dismissed those concerns, saying Russia is quite adept at identifying and intercepting such goods as they cross the border.
European leaders, meeting Friday at a summit in Brussels dominated by wrangling over who should lead its executive arm for the next five years, announced that they would not immediately impose additional sanctions on Russia for its interference in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. But, they said in a statement that additional sanctions were being prepared and could be deployed “without delay” if Russia does not do more to curb violence in eastern Ukraine.
Europe, like the United States, has so far 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.
European leaders set a deadline of next Monday for pro-Russian militants to leave borders posts seized from Ukrainian personnel, to release all hostages, agree to procedures for the verification of a cease-fire and accept “substantial negotiations” on a peace plan proposed by Mr. Poroshenko.
They did not explain what they would do if this does not happen, saying only that they will “assess the situation and, should it be required, adopt necessary decisions.”
In eastern Ukraine, in the embattled regional capital of Donetsk, Aleksandr Borodai, a rebel leader from Russia, told reporters that pro-Russian militias were willing to extend a truce until June 30, provided that the Ukrainian government did the same. The Ukrainian government was expected to agree to the extension.
Source: The New York Times