World Bulletin/News Desk
Russian border guards have stepped up checks on goods entering from Ukraine, officials from the customs services and an agricultural inspection service said on Thursday, underlining tensions between the two countries.
Ties between Ukraine and Russia are at their lowest point since the fall of the Soviet Union. Moscow has annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea and Kiev has threatened to retaliate, including introducing a visa regime for Russians.
"Russian customs have increased customs checks, acting on information about possible attempts to bring contraband in from Ukraine, including weapons," said Dmitry Kotikov, a customs spokesman.
Russia's Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance said customs officers were finding more cargoes with fake documentation.
Separately, Russia's top security service said police had arrested several Russians and Ukrainians accused of smuggling weapons to Russia's volatile North Caucasus region through Ukraine.
A Ukrainian customs spokeswoman said there were no problems along the country's eastern border with Russia.
Russia last tightened customs controls on Ukraine in August last year in a move criticised as a means of piling pressure on Kiev to end negotiations on a free trade agreement with Europe.
Shunning that treaty in favour of closer ties with Russia in November prompted protests that culminated in the toppling of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich last month, ushering in a new pro-EU leadership.
Trade access to European Union
Brussels is giving Ukraine unfettered access to the 28-nation bloc's 500 million consumers even before a proposed bilateral free-trade accord comes into force later this year to cement Kiev's historic shift away from Russia.
"The people of Ukraine fought on the Maidan for democracy and rule of law," said EU lawmaker Daniel Caspary, a member of the European Parliament's International Trade Committee, which approved the deal. "The EU must not let them down."
The committee approved the plan by 22 votes to 2, with 1 abstention. The move is an important step to revive the trade and aid accord with Ukraine which ousted president Viktor Yanukovich rejected in November in favour of cash from Moscow.
That rejection triggered the protests that led to bloodshed in Kiev and Yanukovich's flight to Russia last month, giving the European Union a second chance to offer a so-called Association Agreement to Ukraine.
The ouster of the pro-Russian Yanukovich led to a standoff between Russia and Ukraine that eventually resulted in Crimea's voting to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. European leaders will meet later on Thursday to discuss possible retaliation for Russia's takeover of the region.
EU leaders and Ukraine's prime minister will sign the political part of the free-trade agreement at the two-day summit in Brussels from Thursday. The full European Parliament is due to sign off on the EU's unilateral measures in mid-April.
That will allow 98 percent of all customs duties to be removed for Ukrainian goods entering the European Union from April 23, a deal worth 487 million euros a year and a boost for Ukraine's near-bankrupt economy.
Ukraine had been teetering towards default even before pro-Western unrest in Kiev and Russia's occupation of the Crimea. Trade benefits alone will not save the economy, but they should help stabilise it along with EU and IMF financing.
While the bilateral trade relationship is relatively small - 38.3 billion euros in 2012 - the European Union is Ukraine's top trading partner, representing about a third of the country's total trade, slightly more than with Russia.
Ukraine will not have to provide extra access to EU exports in return until both sides sign the free-trade deal.