BRUSSELS — Over Russia’s objections, Ukraine’s new president on Friday signed a free-trade deal binding his country more closely to Western Europe, sealing the very agreement that triggered the bloodshed and political convulsions of the past seven months.
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 Friday night but was extended by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for three more days.
“What a great day!” a beaming Poroshenko said in Brussels upon the signing of the economic agreement with the European Union. “Maybe the most important day for my country after independence.”
Since it became independent in the 1991 Soviet collapse, Ukraine has been involved in a delicate balancing act between Russia and the West. The Kremlin wants to keep Ukraine, the birthplace of Russian statehood and Russian Orthodox Christianity, in its orbit.
In November, under pressure from Moscow, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanuknovych spiked the EU pact, triggering huge protests that drove him from power. Moscow responded by annexing the mainly Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula in March, and pro-Russian separatists soon rose up in Ukraine’s eastern provinces.
While Friday’s signing marked a defeat for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has threatened to cancel trade preferences for Ukraine, the Kremlin made no immediate move to punish its neighbor or the two other former Soviet republics that joined the pact, Moldova and Georgia.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia will take the necessary measures to protect its markets only when the agreement takes effect. That will take a few months.
Meanwhile, EU leaders decided not to immediately impose new sanctions on Russia for the uprising. But they warned that punitive measures have been drawn up and could be levied immediately.