James Marson in Moscow and
Paul Sonne in Kiev, Ukraine
Ukraine sought to draw a line under its confrontation with Moscow by ratifying a landmark trade-and-political deal with the European Union and approving limited autonomy for territories now controlled by Russia-backed separatists.
But with full implementation of the EU deal postponed under Russian pressure, and the rebels insisting on independence, the developments illustrated Kiev’s weakened position—almost a year after Moscow began flexing its muscle to keep the ex-Soviet republic in its orbit.
Many lawmakers in Kiev broke into the national anthem and cried “Glory to Ukraine” after the EU deal passed with 355 votes in the 450-seat legislature. President Petro Poroshenko hailed it as a first step toward eventual membership in the bloc.
“No country has paid such a high price for its European choice,” he said before the vote. “After that who can close the door to Ukraine?”
But despite patriotic fervor and the symbolism of a video link with the European Parliament, which also approved the deal, the victory for Kiev’s new, pro-Western government has been hollowed out by events of the past year.
Russia has occupied and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Six months of heavy fighting in the country’s east have left at least 3,000 dead and battered Ukraine’s economy.
Rivals of Mr. Poroshenko’s party assailed the autonomy law as caving to Moscow by effectively ceding control to the rebels. Separatist leaders said they would stick to their demands for full independence but stopped short of denouncing the law outright, meaning the conflict could fester for years.
The Kremlin didn’t comment on the Ukrainian parliament’s actions Tuesday.
It was the former Ukrainian president’s rejection of the EU pact last fall, under pressure from the Kremlin, that sparked months of protests and dozens of deaths, leading to his ouster in February.
But Russia shocked Kiev and the West with its determination to keep Ukraine in its orbit, escalating up to what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization last month called a direct military intervention. Russia has denied sending troops into Ukraine.
Reeling on the battlefield, Mr. Poroshenko was left with little choice but to conclude a cease-fire that ceded territory to the separatists. To head off a threatened trade war with Russia, he also agreed to delay implementing a major portion of the EU deal until 2016.
The autonomy law would allow for three years of greater self-governance after local elections on Dec. 7. It calls for local control over courts and prosecutors, protection of Russian-language rights and more economic autonomy in rebel-held areas.
Parliament also passed a law offering broad amnesty to separatists. Both must still be signed by the president.
In an interview on Russian state television, Andrei Purgin, a rebel leader in Donetsk region, rejected “the political embraces of Ukraine.” But he added, “We will study this framework law closely and look for points of commonality for further talks.” He said the separatists are ready to discuss “economic, sociocultural issues and security.”
The autonomy law limits the separatists’ powers to matters typically handled by city or district governments, but it isn’t clear how Kiev would be able to enforce restrictions on other matters such as foreign trade on territory it doesn’t actually control.
While the Sept. 5 cease-fire deal calls for international monitoring of the border with Russia, separatists still control a long stretch of it. Last weekend they received a convoy of more than 200 trucks that Russia said contained food—but which weren’t inspected by Ukrainian officials.
A NATO military officer said Tuesday that Russia still has a significant presence of “highly trained, professional combat troops” inside Ukraine.
“Since the cease-fire we have seen reductions, but we still assess that around 1,000 Russian combat troops are currently fighting inside Ukraine,” said the officer. “They are equipped with hundreds of combat vehicles and artillery. This Russian combat force has all it needs to continue undermining stability in eastern Ukraine in the days ahead.”
Moscow has plenty of tools to bring Kiev to heel, including the newly frozen conflict in the east and the ability to choke Ukraine’s fragile economy. The EU, meanwhile, has demonstrated it will only provide limited support to Ukraine against its giant neighbor.
The immediate effects of the EU agreement will be limited.
The EU has extended lower tariffs on Ukrainian goods until the end of 2015, which it says will save Ukrainian exporters around $640 million a year. Ukraine won’t relax its trade rules until the start of 2016—a move Mr. Poroshenko said would give domestic producers time to prepare for competition with European goods. Russia claimed lifting Ukraine’s tariffs would allow cheap EU goods to flood its market.
Ratifying the whole deal in each of the 28 EU member states could take as long as three years, Ukrainian officials said. That process could be delayed in some European capitals where the Kremlin can deploy significant lobbying power.
The EU “does not currently have the means to win the contest in which it is engaged with Russia,” wrote Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe think tank, in a commentary. “Moscow can escalate its intervention in eastern Ukraine at will, including to the level of military action, knowing that the EU will not respond in the same way.”
Most Ukrainians want to move closer to Europe, and polls show that pro-European parties, including Mr. Poroshenko’s, will dominate parliamentary elections called for Oct. 26.
But analysts say Russia is betting on a winter of discontent with the pro-European government amid economic pain and limited progress on fighting government corruption—another trigger for the street protests last winter.
Ukraine’s parliament passed an anticorruption law, known as lustration, on Tuesday as hundreds of demonstrators outside scuffled with police, set tires on fire and tossed one lawmaker into a garbage bin.
Nikolai Maslov, a 34-year-old tech entrepreneur from Kiev who was among protesters, cheered its passage but lamented the delay in the EU pact. “It is just the weakness of our government and the weakness of its position,” he said.
Others were more understanding. “It is better something than nothing at all,” said Kristina Petrenko, 23, from Kiev.
However, her friend, 24-year-old hair-salon worker Anya Mukha, said she has begun to doubt the cost of challenging Russia’s will. “I don’t know if the European Union is worth the death of so many of our soldiers,” she said.
—Andrey Ostroukh and Naftali Bendavid contributed to this article.