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Ukraine and Canada sign ‘milestone’ free trade deal

Ukraine and Canada signed a “milestone” free trade agreement on Monday designed to bolster support for the war-scarred former Soviet republic in the face of an increasingly assertive Russia.

Canada has a vast Ukrainian diaspora and been a strong supporter of Kiev since its February 2014 pro-EU revolution was followed by Russia’s annexations of Crimea and a 26-month eastern separatist war in which nearly 9,500 people have been killed.

“In 2015, Canada and Ukraine concluded negotiations of the Canada-Ukraine free trade agreement,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters after a meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

“This milestone agreement will improve market access and create more predictable conditions for trade,” Trudeau added on his first official visit to Kiev.

Ukraine already has a free trade agreement with the European Union that infuriated Russia and was followed by an import ban from most Western countries that Moscow recently extended through the end of 2017.

Kiev’s official data show Ukrainian exports to Canada falling more than two-fold to $30.16 million (27.31 million euros) while imports rose by 7.7 percent to $206.24 million last year.

The Canadian leader has faced some questions at home about whether he was preparing to take a softer approach to Russia than that of the country’s previous government.

But Trudeau stressed on Monday that Canada “stands firmly beside Ukraine in response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea as well as its support to insurgents’ in eastern Ukraine.”

He also promised $13 million in new humanitarian assistance that would be used in part to find shelter for the two million people displaced by the war.

Ukraine’s economy has suffered badly from the fighting in its industrial heartland.

Its economy grew marginally in the first three months of the year after nosediving in the wake of the outbreak of hostilities in the east. The conflict has scared off investors and forced Kiev to drain its depleted budget on sustaining the military campaign.

Russia denies charges from Kiev and its Western allies of plotting and supporting pro-Russian rebels in retribution for Ukraine’s ouster of a Moscow-backed president in February 2014.

Trudeau’s visit comes in the footsteps of a trip to Kiev last week by US Secretary of State John Kerry that he used to give stalled peace talks with the rebels a push in an effort to end one of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts since the 1990s Balkans wars.

The Canadian premier is also expected on Tuesday to make a private visit to a Ukrainian military base near the Polish border as well as the western city of Lviv.