Ukraine signs historic trade pact with EU as Moscow warns of consequences

The EU-Ukraine trade pact that helped lead to the current crisis was signed today. Russia, antagonistic over the idea of closer Ukraine integration with Europe, warned of consequences.

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko (c.) poses with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (l.), and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy (r.) during an EU Summit in Brussels on Friday. Mr. Poroshenko today signed a trade and economic pact with the European Union.

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Ukraine signed a sweeping trade and economic integration agreement with the European Union today, over heavy opposition from Russia and segments of the country's own population.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's refusal to sign the deal last November sparked mass protests in Kiev and other cities, leading to his ouster. The Russian response to the loss of the pro-Moscow leader was to seize and annex Ukraine's Crimean peninsula region and to support separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, where the proportion of Russian-speakers is highest.

While many of Ukraine's Western-looking citizens may be hoping that increased trade with the EU will herald a new era of stability and prosperity, Russia wasn't delicate about threatening fresh action against the country and its new President Petro Poroshenko. Ahead of the signing, Sergei Glazyev, a senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, called Mr. Poroshenko's new administration a "clear Nazi government" and compared it to Frankenstein's monster, saying Europe would come to regret closer ties with Kiev. 

Though a spokesman for Mr. Putin said Mr. Glazyev's Nazi comments didn't represent the government's official position, the government did issue a threat, with Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin promising "grave consequences" over the trade deal, which also includes Moldova and Georgia.

Putin, meanwhile, is still hoping to help eastern separatists get a seat at the table to remake Ukraine's government, table to remake Ukraine's government, The Associated Press reports. Poroshenko was elected last month.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Friday for a long-term ceasefire in Ukraine to allow talks between representatives of Kiev and eastern regions where rebels are waging an armed insurgency.

Poroshenko has warned a ceasefire now in place may not be extended beyond Friday night when it is due to expire if peace talks with pro-Russian separatists fail to yield a favourable outcome.

"Most important is the securing of a long-term ceasefire as a necessary condition for substantive talks between the authorities in Kiev and representatives of the southeastern regions," Putin said. "We sincerely strive to help the peace process," he told delegates at a diplomatic ceremony in the Kremlin.

Steve Rosenberg with the BBC in Moscow explains why Moscow finds improving trade ties between former Soviet states and the EU so disturbing.

There is a general sense of irritation or perhaps even anger here that Moscow has failed to convince countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia not to sign this historic free trade deal today with the EU.

Moscow has economic concerns about these deals - it is worried that the Russian market could be flooded by cheap goods from the EU that would hit Russian producers.

More pressing for Moscow are the geopolitical concerns here - the whole idea of former Soviet states, countries that Moscow still views as being within its sphere of influence, drifting towards Europe and one day possibly becoming part of the EU - that really grates with Moscow, particularly in the case of Ukraine.

About 420 people have died in fighting in eastern Ukraine this year, with rebels wielding surface-to-air missiles taking down government helicopters. The New York Times reports that more violence may be a response to the signing today, which fulfilled a campaign promise of Poroshenko, who made a fortune in the candy business before entering politics.

Russia has denied any hand in the violence, but armed fighters spearheading the separatist rebellion depend on arms, funding and manpower from across the border. The United States and Europe have repeatedly called on President Vladimir V. Putin to halt this traffic, something he is unlikely to do if Russia wants to display its displeasure over the trade pact with Brussels. The Kremlin warned earlier this week that a trade deal between Kiev and Brussels would force Moscow to suspend preferential tariff rates to Ukrainian goods, and there is concern that Russia might go further by stoking additional violence in eastern Ukraine.

... On Friday, 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 newly arrived in Moscow. “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.”

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