Russian president Vladimir Putin made a new attempt to woo Ukraine yesterday after the European Union and United States stepped up efforts to pull Kiev out of its former Soviet master’s orbit.
A day after European and US officials held talks with Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in Kiev, Putin used a state-of-the-nation address to tout the economic benefits of joining a customs union that he wants Ukraine to be part of.
Yanukovich — who is seeking the best possible deal for his country of 46m as it tries to stave off bankruptcy — provoked street protests in Kiev by spurning the chance to sign a free-trade pact with the EU last month and saying he wanted to revive ties with Russia instead. But he has hedged his bets by making no commitment to join the Moscow-led customs union and holding out the possibility that Kiev could still sign an association accord that would deepen co-operation with the EU.
“Our integration project is based on equal rights and real economic interests,” Putin said of the customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, which he wants to turn into a political and trading bloc to match the United States and China.
Putin’s ambition to create a Eurasian Union stretching from the Pacific to the EU’s borders depends largely on whether Ukraine signs up, with its rich mineral resources and large market.
With thousands of people on the streets of Kiev demanding Yanukovich’s resignation, the diplomatic battle over Ukraine’s fate is heating up. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland came away with no obvious sign of a breakthrough after Wednesday’s talks with Yanukovich.
“Yanukovich made it clear to me he intends to sign the association agreement,” Ashton said in Brussels.
Another EU official said there had been no change in Yanukovich’s position.
Nuland’s visit was followed by a tough statement from Washington condemning the Ukrainian authorities over action by riot police. “All policy options, including sanctions, are on the table, in our view, obviously that still is being evaluated,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
European leaders say the trade pact with Ukraine would have brought investment. But the country’s Soviet-era industry relies on Russian natural gas, giving Moscow huge leverage.
Moscow has condemned what it sees as fierce foreign pressure on Ukraine, and the EU has accused Russia of using economic blackmail against Kiev. Russian media have raised the spectre of civil war in Ukraine to wave the flag for Putin.