By Laurence Norman
BRUSSELS -- Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he doesn't believe the administration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump will change Washington's backing for the country, saying Mr. Trump had raised with him Russian "aggression" against Ukraine and its illegal annexation of Crimea.
Mr. Poroshenko was speaking at a press conference in Brussels on Thursday after a meeting with European Union leaders, who pledged fresh economic and political backing for Ukraine and indicated that, regardless of any shift in policy in Washington, the bloc will stand by the economic sanctions it imposed on Russia over the conflict in Ukraine.
Mr. Poroshenko's administration is increasingly unpopular at home and Mr. Trump's victory in the presidential election this month has raised questions about the longevity of Western support for Kiev.
EU officials had said before Thursday's meeting they wanted to be seen as bolstering Mr. Poroshenko and his government and would seek to accelerate key EU agreements and pledges to Ukraine in coming weeks.
Mr. Poroshenko was asked about concerns that Mr. Trump would weaken support for Ukraine in a bid to strengthen ties with Russia.
"We don't expect any significant changes in this bipartisan support," Mr. Poroshenko said.
The Ukrainian leader spoke by telephone to Mr. Trump last week. He said Thursday they had a detailed conversation in which Mr. Poroshenko gave the U.S. president-elect a rundown of the conflict in eastern Ukraine between Kiev and pro-Russia separatists.
"I can confirm you that the question of Russian aggression, (and the) illegal annexation of Crimea was raised by President-elect Trump," he said.
Speaking alongside Mr. Poroshenko, European Council President Donald Tusk said that during a telephone conversation with Mr. Trump last Friday, the president-elect's comments about Ukraine were "at least promising compared with some announcements during the campaign time."
During the presidential election, Mr. Trump talked repeatedly about improving ties with Russia and appeared to play down the significance of Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and what Western countries have said was Moscow's backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine.
During Thursday's discussions, the EU promised progress on a series of initiatives that Mr. Poroshenko has been pushing for months.
The two sides signed an updated energy pact that states that Ukraine should remain a key transit country for the delivery of Russian gas to Europe.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that once Ukraine completes a legislative change to allow the export of lumber products, the EU is ready to disburse the next tranche -- worth EUR600 million ($636 million) -- to Kiev. That will be the second tranche of a total earmarked loan of EUR1.8 billion.
Mr. Juncker also said he expects the EU to approve by the end of the year one of the key requests of Mr. Poroshenko's government -- visa-free entry for Ukrainian tourists to the bloc.
Mr. Tusk said he believed the EU would decide ahead of next month's meeting of EU leaders to roll over broad economic sanctions on Russia. The current measures expire in late January.
Ukraine has "many friends here, and I can promise you that you will not be left behind," said Mr. Tusk. "We also have our limitations, but we will continue in our efforts to fulfill your justified expectations."
Still, without the U.S., Europe's backing for Ukraine would face constraints.
There has been growing unease about EU financial assistance for Ukraine, which has faced continued accusations of widespread corruption. That was a key factor in the Dutch referendum vote not to approve a wide-ranging EU-Ukraine pact.
Moreover, a number of EU governments remain deeply skeptical about sanctions on Russia. EU officials acknowledge that if Mr. Trump moves to ease U.S. sanctions on Kiev, the bloc could struggle to remain united behind its own measures.
Write to Laurence Norman at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 24, 2016 13:46 ET (18:46 GMT)
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