Ukraine finally signs the EU deal that started it all

Today's agreement between Brussels and Kiev is a version of the one Yanukovych originally rejected four months ago, precipitating the crisis with Russia.

Olivier Hoslet/AP
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk (c.) and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy (r.) hand each other their books during a signing ceremony at an EU summit in Brussels on Friday. Ukraine’s prime minister has pulled his nation closer into Europe’s orbit, signing a political association agreement with the EU at a summit of EU leaders.

The European Union signed a landmark association agreement with Ukraine today, but the deal itself – which was the initial spark for what became the most dangerous East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War – feels more like a minor addendum now.

If it were November, when the original agreement was supposed to be signed, it may have generated headlines about Europe’s attention swinging eastward, Ukraine’s efforts to reform and create a culture of rule and law based on European values, and even about Russia accepting Ukraine's right to work with both East and West simultaneously.

But the deal signed today – a watered-down version which doesn't yet address trade integration into the EU – has been overshadowed by the worst diplomatic crisis with Russia that Europe and the US have faced in at least two decades. The EU is in a frenzy to reduce its dependence on Russian energy; the Baltic states are afraid of Russia’s encroachment on their political and physical territories; and the entire world is wondering what Russia intends to do next.

In short, the crisis sparked by the deal has moved far beyond Ukraine’s economic and political fate.

In November, Ukraine leader Viktor Yanukovych walked away from the EU association agreement under financial pressure from Russia, and angry Ukrainians poured into the streets in a show of pro-European fervor that then turned into a deadly standoff. The West sanctioned both Mr. Yanukovych (who has since been impeached and fled the country) and, in recent weeks, also Russia after it took over Ukraine’s Crimea.

The deal today is still crucial for Ukraine. It “recognizes the aspirations of the people of Ukraine to live in a country governed by values, by democracy, and the rule of law,” said EU President Herman Van Rompuy in a statement. Still, what was signed today does not represent the full deal that was on the table in November. The entire package, including trade integration, is meant to be signed after Ukraine holds new presidential elections in May.

And while it has been overshadowed by an East-West standoff, the EU also announced it will speed up similar association deals with Georgia and Moldova, it said in its statement:

The European Union reconfirms its objective to further strengthen the political association and economic integration with Georgia and the Republic of Moldova. We confirm our aim to sign the Association Agreements, including the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas, which we initiated in Vilnius last November, no later than June 2014.

While Moscow has, to date, largely laughed at the sanctions that Europe and the US have placed on it – including travel bans and asset freezes – this announcement is likely to provoke far more unease in Russian quarters. It was the fear of the EU entering into what Russia considers its sphere of influence, represented by EU association agreements with former Soviet bloc nations, that led Russia to pressure Ukraine to walk away from an EU deal in the first place. The EU has been concerned about Russian intentions in both Georgia and Moldova.

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