Ukraine signs historic EU trade pact sparking Russia ire
Ukraine signed a landmark economic trade pact with the European Union on Friday prompting a furious response from the Kremlin, even as talks were extended over a peace plan to stop violence in the country’s eastern regions.
Petro Poroshenko, the president of Ukraine, signed the accord at a ceremony in Brussels, calling it a “new perspective for my country”.
The leaders of Georgia and Moldova also put pens to EU “association agreements” in a historic step for the three former Soviet countries.
It was a refusal to sign the pact last year by Mr Poroshenko’s predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, which triggered popular protests in Ukraine, leading to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula and an armed pro-Russian uprising against government forces around Donetsk and Luhansk.
A shaky ceasefire in that conflict – due to expire last night – was extended until Monday. EU leaders warned they would consider tougher sanctions against Russia if no progress was made on disarming the rebels, who are promised an amnesty. They also want the insurgents to release about 200 hostages and give up control of several border checkpoints.
Russian anger at the trade deal was evident as a senior adviser to Mr Putin labelled Mr Poroshenko a “Nazi” and called the agreement “illegitimate”.
The Kremlin distanced itself from the comments but deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin said the accord would have “serious consequences”.
Mr Putin called for a long-term ceasefire while claiming the overthrow of Mr Yanukovich had provoked a schism in Ukrainian society, a humanitarian crisis and a “flow of blood”.
Speaking at a ceremony for foreign diplomats in the Kremlin, the Russian president said: “The anti-constitutional coup in Kiev and the attempts to impose on the Ukrainian people an artificial choice between Europe and Russia pushed society towards a schism, a painful internal confrontation.” Mr Putin added: “In the south east of the country, blood is flowing, there is a real humanitarian catastrophe, tens of thousands of refugees are forced to seek shelter, including in Russia.” The trade deal came amid tense talks over a peace plan suggested by Mr Poroshenko. He earlier announced a week-long ceasefire in an attempt to persuade pro-Russia rebels in the east of Ukraine to lay down their arms.
While the truce proved shaky, with bouts of fighting continuing throughout, indirect negotiations between Kiev and separatist commanders are expected to continue. In one positive gesture, pro-Russia insurgents in Donetsk released overnight four out of eight detained observers of the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe.
However, tank fire could be heard on the Ukrainian border near the town of Gukovo in Russia’s Rostov region on Friday.
The muffled booms that rolled through the damp air every few minutes could almost have been thunder.
But the mechanical regularity was unmistakable: somewhere over there, tanks were firing.
Fall out from the on-going fighting is everywhere in the Rostov region, where refugees from Ukraine’s war-torn Luhansk and Donetsk regions are arriving almost every day.
"Sometimes, the position of Mr. Putin is quite pragmatic, sometimes it is very emotional," he said. "I just try to find out the time when he is more pragmatic than emotional."
Vladimir Skomaroshov, the commander of another transit camp said over 200 people had come over the border on Thursday – twice the number his transit point has been receiving in previous days.
“I guess it was the end of the ceasefire. But today, no one. We don’t know why. There is no one manning the Ukrainian border post on the other side,” he said.
The EU association agreements signed today with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova lift trade tariffs and promise help with economic reforms, while stopping short of a pathway to membership.
The deals are seen as part of an ongoing struggle between Russia and the West to exert influence over former Soviet states. Moscow had tried to entice Kiev into membership in a customs union with itself, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and may raise its own tariffs in retaliation at the EU agreement.
Mr Putin appeared conciliatory when he asked parliament earlier this week to revoke a law allowing Russian military intervention in Ukraine.
But speaking of the EU trade accord Sergei Glazyev, one of his senior advisers, told the BBC: “Europe is trying to push Ukraine to sign this agreement by force.
“They organised [a] military coup in Ukraine, they helped Nazis to come to power. This Nazi government is bombing the largest region in Ukraine.” Asked if he believed Mr Poroshenko was a Nazi, Mr Glazyev replied: “Of course.”
Mr Poroshenko told CNN that he tried to judge Mr Putin’s mood as diplomacy intensified over today’s deadline.
“Sometimes, the position of Mr. Putin is quite pragmatic, sometimes it is very emotional,” he said. “I just try to find out the time when he is more pragmatic than emotional.”