PARIS — The European Union sought to reassure Russia Monday that a trade agreement between Europe and Ukraine would not harm Moscow. Foreign ministers from both sides spoke in Brussels Monday, amid European divisions over how to move forward.
Speaking to reporters following a luncheon meeting between European Union foreign ministers and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Russian fears about a trade agreement between Europe and Ukraine were unfounded.
"What we've been saying to our Russia counterpart is there is no need to operate in an atmosphere of pressure. What we should be doing is making sure that both countries have a free choice about the agreements they reach," she said. "But also recognizing that in a world of free trade agreements, and under the WTO, it's very normal for countries to have agreements with many other countries."
Talks between the two sides took place on the sidelines of an EU foreign ministers meeting. They follow weeks of mass protests in Ukraine after the country's president, Victor Yanukovych, backed away from a long-planned trade deal with the EU under pressure from Moscow. Yanukovych heads to Moscow Tuesday for discuss a roadmap for better trade relations with Russia.
Speaking to reporters after the Brussels meeting, Foreign Minister Lavrov sought to paper over differences with Europe.
"It was our common agreement that everyone should respect sovereignty of any country, including Ukraine, and everyone should allow the people to make the free choice of how they want to develop their country," he said.
Divisions also exist among EU members on how to handle Kyiv. The block's enlargement chief Stefan Fuele tweeted on Sunday that the trade talks with Kyiv were on hold. That has drawn criticism from the Netherlands. EU members say the door remains open.
Still, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt voiced EU frustrations about Yanukovych's seemingly inconsistent policy, in which he has appeared to move closer and then distance himself from a trade deal.
"Talks require a policy…and there's doublespeak from President Yanukovych," he said. "He's sending one of his deputy prime ministers to Brussels to say nothing and then he says says another thing in Kyiv."
Nonetheless, Bildt says, if Kyiv sends a clear message favoring a trade agreement, the EU is ready to sign it.