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Ukraine defies Russia, signs landmark trade deal with European Union

| Friday, June 27, 2014, 9:32 p.m.

Ukraine on Friday signed a landmark trade deal to bind itself to the European Union, a monumental step that defied months of Russian efforts to block the country from turning westward.

Russia, meanwhile, fended off for the time being a new, more crippling round of Western sanctions over its intervention in Ukraine, where a fragile cease-fire between government forces and pro-Moscow separatists in the east expired on Friday night but was extended by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for three more days.

The agreement will have “serious consequences” for Ukraine's relationship with Russia, a top Russian diplomat said immediately after the signing ceremony in Brussels. The decision also was expected to complicate efforts to end more than two months of separatist violence in eastern Ukraine.

It was the same document that was rejected in November by Ukraine's then-President Viktor Yanukovych. That decision sparked months of protests by pro-Western Ukrainians, a crackdown by Yanukovych and his eventual ouster in February, leading to the greatest tensions between the West and Russia since the Cold War.

More than 100 protesters died in Kiev under the blue and yellow banner of the EU, as they took to the streets to demand that Yanukovych reconsider his last-minute decision — made under heavy Russian pressure — to reject the agreement. Hundreds more Ukrainians and dozens of Russians have died in violence in eastern Ukraine since April, when pro-Russia separatists seized government buildings and territory in an effort to align themselves with Russia rather than the EU.

Friday is “maybe the most important day for my country after independence day,” said Poroshenko, as he signed the deal in Brussels, using the pen he said Yanukovych would have used in November. “All of us would have wished to sign the agreement under different, more comfortable circumstances. On the other hand, the external aggression faced by Ukraine is another strong reason for this crucial step.

“Over the last months, Ukraine paid the highest possible price to make her European dreams come true,” he added. “It must be worth something.”

He called for EU leaders to offer assurances that Ukraine one day could become a full member and said the nation was committed to joining the union.

Two other former Soviet republics, Georgia and Moldova, also signed the telephone-book-thick trade deals with the EU on Friday in the face of Russian threats of tough consequences if they did so. The agreements will require them to enact economic reforms, as well as to meet EU standards for government contracting, cutting down on the corruption that has plagued all three societies since their independence.

Russia has said that it views the expansion of EU ties to its border as a Western encroachment on a region that has long been within the Kremlin's sphere of influence. Russia has sought to enlist those countries in the Eurasian Union, its competing vision of an alliance based on values dominated by Moscow and free of Western influence.

European Union leaders — along with those of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova —have said that the deal does not constitute a challenge to Russia.

“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,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday in Moscow.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said the deal would “no doubt ... have serious consequences,” Russia's Interfax news agency reported.

The agreements will open the vast 28-nation EU market, with its 504 million residents, to tariff-free exports from the countries in exchange for gradual work toward bringing regulations up to European standards. Leaders in all three countries hope to follow the model of Poland and the Baltic nations, former Eastern bloc states that are now EU members and whose economies have grown significantly in the 23 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, by contrast, have struggled.

Meanwhile, EU leaders decided not to impose new sanctions immediately on Russia for the uprising. But they warned that punitive measures have been drawn up and could be levied immediately.

And they gave Russia and the rebels until Monday to take steps to ease the violence, including releasing all captives, retreating from border checkpoints, agreeing on a way to verify the cease-fire and starting “substantial negotiations” on Poroshenko's peace plan.

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