MOSCOW, December 12 (RIA Novosti) – If Ukraine wants to take part in projects that Russia is carrying out with Belarus and Kazakhstan as part of the Customs Union, it is welcome to send expert-level delegations, the Russian president said Thursday.
Ukraine unexpectedly put on hold preparations last month to sign landmark political and trade deals with the EU in favor of strengthening ties with Moscow.
The decision sparked nationwide protests in Ukraine, and the Ukrainian opposition and EU have accused Russia of putting economic pressure on Kiev not to sign the deals. Moscow has vehemently denied that its trade embargoes and gas deliveries were a form of intimidation against Ukraine, saying it is only taking measures to protect its own economy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Ukrainian leadership has repeatedly expressed interest – since several months before the EU deal was postponed – in attending Customs Union meetings as an observer and in joining separate agreements of the Customs Union.
“We are not obliging anyone to do anything, but if our friends would like to cooperate, we are ready to continue this work at an expert level,” Putin said during his annual presidential address to the Russian Federal Assembly, which comprises lawmakers from both chambers of the Russian parliament.
Russia has openly lobbied for economically struggling former Soviet nations such as Ukraine, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan to join the Customs Union, which some view as an exercise by Moscow to reassert regional influence.
Armenia and Kyrgyzstan have said they are ready to join the union, and working groups have been set up to prepare roadmaps for their accession.
Although Ukraine currently has observer status in the three-party bloc, it had previously indicated that it would not seek full membership in the union that Russia hopes will evolve into a broader economic entity.
In 2011, leaders of the Russian, Belarusian and Kazakh presidents signed a declaration on Eurasian economic integration. The declaration is a roadmap of integration processes aimed at creating a Eurasian Economic Union based on the Customs Union and a common economic area between the three countries.
Putin said he expected the treaty’s wording to be finalized by May 2014. It will then be submitted to the three national parliaments for ratification.
“We will consistently promote the Eurasian [integration] process without setting it against other integration projects, including … the European one,” the president said.