BRUSSELS — Seven months after Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych rejected a sweeping trade deal with the European Union and set off protests that drove him from power, Ukraine’s new leader on Friday accepted the pact, which Russia has bitterly opposed as a threat to its own economic and strategic interests in the former Soviet Union.
The news agency Interfax in Moscow quoted Russia’s deputy foreign minister as warning that “serious consequences” would follow the signing of a deal that Moscow has long worked to derail.
The signing followed months of upheaval in Ukraine that split the country and set off an armed, separatist rebellion in the east that has yet to be resolved. While a moment of triumph for the European Union, it represented a setback of sorts for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who considered Ukraine an integral part of Russia and was determined not to let it slide into the West’s orbit.
With Georgia and Moldova signing similar agreements, Putin was facing the prospect of three former Soviet republics slipping out of Russia’s sphere of interest. He was able to reclaim southern Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, with its strategic naval base and considerable energy resources, but at the cost of provoking economic sanctions and capital flight that has dragged down Russia’s economy.
Putin retains enormous influence in Ukraine, where the new president, Petro Poroshenko, and Western leaders accuse Putin of organizing and arming separatist rebels who control significant sections of the country’s east. The United States and Europe have swept aside Russian denials of a hand in the violence.
Despite threats this week from Secretary of State John Kerry of new and tougher sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine, EU leaders announced within hours of signing the economic accord that they would not support such a step.
Europe, like the United States, has limited its sanctions to an asset freeze and travel ban against a narrow group of Russian political and military figures involved in the March annexation of Crimea.
But the pact noted that preparatory work was underway for additional sanctions and set out conditions, including the return of Ukrainian border posts seized by pro-Russian fighters, that it said should be met by Monday.
The European officials also expressed support for a peace plan for eastern Ukraine put forward this week by Poroshenko and suggested that blame for frequent violations of a cease-fire announced Tuesday and extended Friday lay not with Ukraine but with pro-Russian militants and Russian connivance.
Poroshenko, a confectionary mogul who won Ukraine’s presidential elections in May to fill a post left vacant when Yanukovych fled from the country in February, signed the so-called Association Agreement at the Brussels headquarters of the European Union on the sidelines of a summit meeting of leaders of the bloc’s 28 countries.
“This is a really historic date for Ukraine,” Poroshenko told a news conference in Brussels.
He voiced hopes that Ukraine might one day join the European Union, an option that is not on the table at the moment, and hailed the trade pact as a new beginning for all Ukrainians, including Russian-speakers in the east.
“The signature of this agreement signifies new investment, new rules without corruption and new markets, the biggest market in the world,” Poroshenko told reporters, adding that he did not expect Ukraine to lose access to Russia or any other markets.
The accord with the European Union fulfills an election promise by Poroshenko to move Ukraine closer to Europe, reversing a course set by Yanukovych before his ouster. But it could complicate another pledge he made to curb violence by separatists who have seized government buildings in a number of cities in eastern Ukraine where residents feel a close affinity to neighboring Russia.
The signing of the accord represented a huge, symbolic political victory, and it was greeted in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, as a triumph for the thousands of demonstrators who camped out for months in Independence Square, ultimately driving Yanukovych to flee to Russia. Europe’s call, however, for integrating Ukraine politically and economically into the West seems as distant as ever given the violence still plaguing the east of the country.
Ukraine signed the political clauses of the Association Agreement in March, but the signing Friday of its more important and much lengthier economic and trade sections completed a process that the European Union had expected to finish in November, when Yanukovych abruptly walked away from a deal and triggered months of antigovernment demonstrations in Kiev.
The deal offers Ukraine no prospect of actually joining the European Union, membership of which has often gone hand-in-hand with entry to NATO, but Russia nonetheless sees it as a serious threat to its own historically close ties to Ukraine, a fellow Slavic nation that was for centuries part of the Russian empire of the czars and then of the Soviet Union.