A free-trade zone between Ukraine and the European Union takes another step toward reality today, as the nation that's under pressure from pro-Russian separatists signs an economic agreement with the EU. The deal also includes two other former Soviet states, Moldova and Georgia.

The trade pact comes as a tense cease-fire is set to expire Friday in Ukraine, where government forces and militants have been locked in a confrontation for weeks. It also promises to push Ukraine firmly toward Europe, and away from Russia's influence.

From Brussels, Teri Schultz reports for our Newscast unit:

"Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko came to Brussels to sign the deal that tore his country apart last year. The EU Association Agreement was rejected by Poroshenko's predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, which sparked the long-running protests in Maidan Square and his eventual ouster."Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, will have greater access to EU markets and receive training and cooperation on matters such as law enforcement, governmental reform and respect for human rights. "Poroshenko calls it the most historic day for Ukraine since it regained independence from the Soviet Union." 'We can use this opportunity to modernize the country,' Poroshenko said. He added, 'the only thing we need for that is peace and security.'"Russia has threatened retaliatory trade measures against the three countries."

The deal was signed during the EU's summit meetings in Brussels. Despite hints earlier this week that the organization might levy more sanctions against Russia over its role in Ukraine's unrest, the EU isn't likely to take that step, according to Russia's Itar-TASS agency, which cites a Western diplomat as its source.

The anonymous diplomat added that the EU could extend its "blacklist" to hamper more Russian officials' travel and banking actions.

From the BBC in Moscow, Steve Rosenberg has this analysis:

"There is a general sense of irritation or perhaps even anger here that Moscow has failed to convince countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia not to sign this historic free-trade deal today with the EU."Moscow has economic concerns about these deals — it is worried that the Russian market could be flooded by cheap goods from the EU that would hit Russian producers."

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