Putin to Ukraine: the door's still open to a trade pact

Vladimir Putin suggests that politically divided Ukraine could pursue both Eastern and Western integration approaches during an annual address.

Sergei Ilnitsky / Reuters
Russia's President Vladimir Putin walks in before delivering his annual state of the nation address at the Kremlin in Moscow today. Putin said he was counting on the Ukrainian government and opposition to find a political solution to their country's crisis.

The door is still open for Ukraine to integrate its economy more closely with Russia's, President Vladimir Putin said in his annual state-of-the-nation address to lawmakers on Thursday.

Ukraine might even be allowed to join a free trade zone with the European Union while still maintaining the tight trading links with Russia that are crucial to the Ukrainian economy's survival, Mr. Putin suggested. Striking a more conciliatory note than in the past towards Russia's neighbor, he said simultaneous trade talks could be "complementary."

Ukraine has been in turmoil for weeks, since President Viktor Yanukovych abruptly postponed plans to sign an association agreement with the EU, in part because Ukraine's fragile economy could not afford any corresponding rupture of trading ties with Russia.

"I very much hope that all the political forces of Ukraine, taking into account their country's basic interests, will find a way to resolve their current problems," Putin said. 

Putin has been trying for years to persuade Ukraine to join a Moscow-led customs union, whose membership so far includes only Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. The Kremlin plans to expand that group into a Eurasian Economic Union by 2015, a free trade zone that it hopes could eventually rival the European Union in its scope and economic power. Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have all expressed interest in signing on, but their economies are much smaller than that of Ukraine's, which has refused to join and insisted it would seek long-term integration with the EU instead. 

"Even before all these events we are now seeing in Kiev, Ukraine had expressed interest and since May of this year has been present as an observer at all meetings of the [Moscow-led customs union]. ... We are not obliging anyone to do anything, but if our friends would like to cooperate, we are ready to continue this work at an expert level," Putin said. 

Mr. Yanukovych insists that his pivot away from Europe was a short-term tactical maneuver, based on Ukraine's fear of losing its current trade preferences with Russia and a relatively poor package of financial aid offered by the EU. 

But after tens of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets to protest Yanukovych's failure to sign the EU deal, the Ukrainian government is sending a delegation to Brussels and signaling that it might soon close a deal that will pull it into Europe's orbit. 

The Kremlin in the past has repeatedly warned Ukraine that taking the EU route would automatically cause Russia to raise customs barriers and has introduced some selective measures -- such as a summer chocolate embargo -- to illustrate just how much economic pain may lie ahead. 

But Putin struck a more moderate note in his address Thursday, suggesting that cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union need not prevent Ukraine from associating with the EU as well. 

"Our integration project is based on equality, on real economic interests. We will consistently promote the Eurasian process, without opposing it to other integration projects, including such a mature project as the European one. We will proceed from the premise that they are complementary," Putin said. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.