The European Union signed free-trade and political cooperation agreements with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova on Friday as the three former soviet republics took a historic step away from Russian influence and closer to a future in Europe.
The accord falls short of full EU membership but offers deep economic integration and tariff-free access to the EU's 500 million consumers.
'This is a great day for Europe... the European Union stands by your side today more than ever before,' European Council head Herman Van Rompuy said at the ceremony with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Ministers Irakli Garibashvili of Georgia and Iurie Leanca of Moldova.
Ukraine's signing of the accord is of particular significance, given the country's current battle with pro-Russian separatists and Moscow's recent annexing of Crimea.
The crisis was sparked by the ousting of former president Viktor Yanukovich following months of protests after he backed out of signing an association agreement with the EU in favour of closer ties with Russia.
'Over the last months, Ukraine paid the highest possible price to make her European dreams come true,' Poroshenko told EU leaders at the signing ceremony in Brussels.
Before the signing ceremony, Poroshenko brandished a commemorative pen inscribed with the date of the EU's Vilnius summit, where Yanukovich had balked at approving the agreement.
'Historic events are unavoidable,' he said.
Russia warns of ‘serious consequences'
Van Rompuy insisted there was nothing in the agreements that 'might harm Russia in any way'. But almost immediately, Moscow made clear it was reserving the right to react.
Russia's deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin told the Interfax news agency that the signing of the accords would have 'serious' consequences, while President Vladimir Putin accused the EU of fostering a divide between East and West in Ukraine.
'The anti-constitutional coup in Kiev, the attempts to impose an artificial choice between Europe and Russia have pushed society to a split, to a painful internal confrontation,' Putin said in Moscow.
The accords mean that businesses in the three countries whose goods and practices meet EU standards will be able to trade freely in any EU country without tariffs or restrictions. Likewise, EU goods and services will be able to sell more easily and cheaply to businesses and customers in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.
European Commission experts estimate implementation of the deal is expected to boost Ukraine's national income by around 1.2 billion euros ($1.6 billion) a year.
EU Enlargement Commission Stefan Fule said the trade bloc has made clear to Moscow its willingness to demonstrate that Russian economic interests will not be harmed.
Nevertheless, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia would act if the accord ended up hurting its economic interests.
'We will take all the necessary measures to protect our economy,' Peskov told the state ITAR-TASS agency.
Russia has previously imposed trade embargos against its neighbors in response to political or economic moves that the Kremlin views as unfavorable.
Source: AFP, AP, Reuters, France 24