The EU today finally signed Association Agreements with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia amid much fanfare. Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, was in Brussels for the signing ceremony, and pledged to keep Ukraine on the path to eventual integration with the European Union. In the immediate term, Ukraine’s exporters stand to benefit, with some estimates putting the gains from trade at up to €500 million per year.The signing brings to a close the process that had originally precipitated the massive showdown between the West and Russia. But the showdown itself is far from over. The Russian reaction to the signing was muted but edgy. The FT:
Grigory Karasin, deputy foreign minister, said the decision by Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to sign the agreement with the EU was “a sovereign right of every state,” according to Interfax news agency.“There is no doubt that the signing will have major consequences, but we should not make commonplace remarks but assess the implications in order to avoid all kinds of misunderstandings and suspicions,” he added.
Meanwhile, the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine (which isn’t really holding—four Ukrainian soldiers were reportedly killed yesterday near Kramatorsk) officially expires this evening. The Association Agreement is unpopular in the Donbass region, so its signing may lead to rebels digging in their heels even more in the coming days and weeks.The immediate threat of further sanctions has kept Putin’s public bluster to a minimum, and has even prompted him to be minimally conciliatory in an attempt to stop any European consensus from developing. Nevertheless, something of a consensus formed anyway, with the Europeans imposing a deadline of next Monday for Russia to cease providing support to Ukrainian separatists. Germany appeared to be overruling a recalcitrant group of EU countries, including Italy, Austria, Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria, who had come out earlier in the week against further sanctions on Russia. Whether European resolve persists into next week is something to watch for: Monday’s deadline will merely prompt further review of the situation.Putin still holds many good cards in his hand, and is playing the long game in Ukraine. His strategy at this point is: 1) keep Crimea; 2) keep Ukraine on the boil without triggering too many further Western sanctions; 3) force the West to pick up the costs of bailing out Ukraine’s feeble economy; and 4) when and if an opportunity arises, bite off more chunks of eastern and southern Ukraine. Meanwhile, Putin is sure to use the sense of rivalry and polarization against the West to build up political support at home.Russia remains a relatively weak power on a long-term historical downslope. It ultimately needs good relations with the EU and the U.S., but its Ukrainian adventure has been a net plus. To overestimate Russia’s potential and think that we are back to the Cold War is a mistake; to underestimate Russia only gives it more opportunities to make trouble.[post updated]