Top European Union officials met the Ukrainian leadership on Monday for talks on deepening trade links and efforts to bring peace to Ukraine, but worsening violence in the separatist-minded east clouded the summit.
As Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk, Kyiv’s military reported intensifying attacks by pro-Russian rebels in the east and southeast.
One serviceman from Ukraine’s army had been killed and three others wounded, a military spokesman said.
The EU-Ukraine summit was the first since a political and free trade association agreement was signed by Poroshenko’s pro-Western leadership after the ousting of the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich in a public revolt in Kyiv in February last year.
Russia, under sanctions from the EU because of what Western governments and Kyiv say is clear support for the rebels, has made no secret it opposes Ukraine’s moves to integrate with the European mainstream.
It has secured a delay in implementation of the free trade deal, which will take Ukraine further away from Russia’s orbit, until January 2016.
But Ukraine on Monday secured backing from the EU officials that there would be no more such delays despite Russian requests.
“Others want to postpone the entry into force of this free trade agreement,” Juncker said in a clear reference to Russia.
“We don’t think this would be a wise and a good idea. It has been postponed once. We are postponing, postponing, postponing. We have to have this free trade agreement enter into force on January 2016,” Juncker told a news conference.
“After our negotiations, I think that no-one can have any doubt that the free trade agreement between Ukraine and the European Union will come into force from January 1 2016,” Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said in televised comments from the summit hall.
Importance of reforms
EU officials said the summit had been called to give the near-bankrupt ex-Soviet country strong support for its reform programme and efforts to achieve financial stability with support from the International Monetary Fund and the EU and by debt restructuring.
The EU particularly is pressing Ukraine to take radical moves to rid itself of endemic corruption and reform its corruption-prone energy sector, give regions more power to run their own affairs and improve the business and investment climate.
In televised comments, Poroshenko assured EU leaders that Kyiv was committed to a negotiated solution to the fighting in line with the Minsk agreement, brokered by himself and the leaders of Russia, Germany and France, in February which ushered in a fragile ceasefire.
More than 6,100 people have been killed in more than one year of conflict.
“Ukraine is sure that a diplomatic settlement is the only option in the east,” he told Juncker and Tusk.
But Tusk, speaking at a news conference, acknowledged the threat to the fragile peace deal from renewed violence around Mariupol, a coastal city on the Sea of Azov, and to the northeast of Donetsk, a big regional city now held by the rebels.
There was still a real threat from heavy artillery, which should have been pulled back, and weapons were still being brought into Ukraine from Russia, Tusk said, adding that he hoped Russia would fulfill all its obligations under the Minsk agreement.
Tusk said the EU was aware of Kyiv’s wish for international peacekeepers to be sent to eastern Ukraine. He said the EU would send “as soon as possible” experts in a civilian “assessment” mission to look into a possible EU role there.
Juncker reiterated that the EU would provide financial assistance of €1.8 billion. Separately, he pledged the European Commission would make further financial assistance of €70 million to ensure a “return to a safe environment” at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
The assistance will go towards building a new safety structure round the existing sarcophagus of the reactor which exploded in April 1986 in what was then the world’s worst nuclear accident.