As Russia accelerates its efforts to secure Crimea, Ukrainian acting leaders finally signed the landmark trade deal with the European Union that sparked the last several months of unrest.
The Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine is the same one ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign in November, a move that ultimately cost him the presidency, and led to the current crisis in Crimea. It mandates closer ties economic and political ties between Kiev and the EU. However, the key free-trade component of the agreement won't be signed until after Ukrainian presidential elections are held in May.
As well as the closer political ties, the European Commission has agreed to extend nearly 500 million euros worth of trade benefits to Ukraine, removing customs duties on a wide range of agricultural goods, textiles and other imports. Once Ukraine has held presidential elections on May 25 and a new administration is in place, the EU plans to move ahead with signing a free-trade agreement with Ukraine, giving the country unfettered access to the EU's market of 500 million consumers.
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said the deal "symbolizes the importance that both sides attach to this relationship, and our joint will to take it further," adding:
It recognizes the aspirations of the people of Ukraine to live in a country governed by values, by democracy and the rule of law, where all citizens have a stake in national prosperity. And the popular yearning for a decent life as a nation, for a European way of life... this will help Ukraine on its path of economic and social reform. It is not an easy road, certainly not in this time of turmoil and tensions. But along this road the Association Agreement can serve as a compass.
Both sides seemed to acknowledge that, at least at this stage, the deal is more a lifeline to the struggling Ukraine than a mutually beneficial agreement. Ukraine's interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk commented that "I strongly believe the EU will speak with one single strong voice, protecting Ukraine."
Meanwhile, Russia is moving speedily along to confirm the annexation of Crimea. Every member of Russia's upper house of Parliament voted in favor of ratifying the annexation treaty, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to sign the treaty later today, finalizing the deal that every other nations still refuses to recognize.
Russia's swift proceedings ignore sanctions by the EU and U.S. On Thursday, President Barack Obama issued a second round of sanctions targeting Putin's inner circle (but not Putin himself) and just this morning the EU broadened its own list of sanctions. With regard to retaliatory action against the EU or U.S., Putin said "I think we should refrain from taking steps in response for now." However, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev did mention that Russia wants $11 billion from Ukraine, because gas discounts issued to Crimea are no longer valid.
And, per usual, the situation seems on the brink of a more ominous confrontation:
BREAKING: Defense official says France is ready to send warplanes to the Baltics, Poland.— The Associated Press (@AP) March 21, 2014
Even though on the ground, things continue to seem surprisingly peaceful, even as Russian forces tighten their grip.