KIEV, Ukraine — The European Union’s top diplomat told reporters in Brussels on Thursday that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych had “made it clear to me that he intends to sign” a trade agreement with the bloc. But protesters weren’t buying it and spent the day bolstering five formidable snow and ice barricades that protect their long-running encampment.
Yanukovych, who backed out of signing the E.U. agreement in November, has said all along that he still wants to pursue a deal, even as he pursues another one with Russia. Skepticism about Yanukovych’s utterances runs deep among Ukrainians, but if he really means what he says this time, it could be because Western governments have emphasized that Wednesday’s botched police raid in Independence Square has emboldened his opposition and left him with little room to maneuver.
“This is real, this is absolutely real,” Ukraine’s foreign minister, Leonid Kozhara, told the Interfax news agency Thursday, adding that Ukraine might sign on with Europe as early as next spring.
That suggests a long winter ahead for the opposition, which has shown no signs of flagging. “Both sides are playing on time and trying to wear the other side down,” Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels, said in a conference call Thursday.
Catherine Ashton, the E.U. foreign policy chief, disclosed Yanukovych’s assurances of his intention to sign as she was returning from a trip to Kiev. She had two long meetings with him this week.
Yanukovych also met Wednesday with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. Afterward, a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private discussions said the two had had “an extremely detailed conversation on what was required to get back on the path to Europe.”
Ukraine is running out of money and faces the likelihood of default, perhaps before spring. The E.U. is open to working out a deal for the country with the International Monetary Fund. Russia, for its part, has offered to reduce the price Ukraine must pay for natural gas if it moves to join the new Eurasian Customs Union.
“I'm sure achieving Eurasian integration will only increase interest from our other neighbors, including from our Ukrainian partners,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday in his state-of-the-nation address in Moscow.
A Ukrainian delegation headed to Brussels on Thursday for further talks, although analysts said the E.U. should avoid giving the impression it is rewarding Yanukovych for the police action a day earlier.
“I would be very careful about any forecasts,” Igor Burakovsky, head of the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting here, wrote in an e-mail.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States might consider imposing personal sanctions on Ukrainian officials if there is more police violence.
It’s not clear that even an ironclad commitment to forge closer ties with Europe would satisfy the opposition and the thousands of protesters in the capital. That’s the issue that brought them out Nov. 21, but since then, the theme has broadened to include punishment for those responsible for a Nov. 30 police raid — including the interior minister — and the release of all “political” prisoners, as well as the dismissal of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his cabinet.
Yanukovych has offered to hold roundtable discussions with the opposition, but its leaders have refused to participate until he starts meeting their demands.
Beyond that, many protesters have targeted the corruption that marks Ukraine in general, and Yanukovych’s government in particular, and have demanded his removal from office. The likelihood of that, barring a major misstep on his part, appears to be slim.