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Westward shift by Ukraine would be momentous event

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Ukrainian opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk, left, and Ukrainian lawmaker and chairman of the Ukrainian opposition party Udar (Punch), former WBC heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, foreground center, during their talks with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, foreground right, during their talks in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014.The head of the European security organization, OSCE is proposing the establishment of an international contact group to support Ukraine in its difficult transition period.(AP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko, Pool)

Ukrainian opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk, left, and Ukrainian lawmaker and chairman of the Ukrainian opposition party Udar (Punch), former WBC heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, foreground center, during their talks with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, foreground right, during their talks in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014.The head of the European security organization, OSCE is proposing the establishment of an international contact group to support Ukraine in its difficult transition period.(AP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko, Pool)

Ukrainian lawmaker and chairman of the Ukrainian opposition party Udar (Punch), former WBC heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, left, speaks to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton during their meeting in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014.The head of OSCE, the European security organization is proposing the establishment of an international contact group to support Ukraine in its difficult transition period.(AP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko, pool)

Ukrainian opposition leader Oleg Tjagnibok, left, and Ukrainian lawmaker and chairman of the Ukrainian opposition party Udar (Punch), former WBC heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, second left, during their talks with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, foreground right, during their talks in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. The head of OSCE, the European security organization is proposing the establishment of an international contact group to support Ukraine in its difficult transition period.(AP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko, Pool)

Ukrainian opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk, left, and Ukrainian lawmaker and chairman of the Ukrainian opposition party Udar (Punch), former WBC heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, foreground center, during their talks with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, foreground right, during their talks in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014.The head of the European security organization, OSCE is proposing the establishment of an international contact group to support Ukraine in its difficult transition period.(AP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko, Pool)

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BRUSSELS (AP) — A firm course change in Ukraine — westward and turning away from Moscow — would have momentous consequences for the balance of power in Europe.

The move would propel the continent’s second-largest country into the orbit of the 28-nation European Union rather than Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.

Taken to its logical conclusion, Ukraine’s farm fields, mines and factories, which are now mainly oriented toward the Russian market, could eventually chiefly produce for the EU — the world’s largest single economic bloc, extending as far west as the British Isles.

Its capital city of Kiev, known as the mother of Russia’s cities, could one day have denser links with Rome, Paris and London than with St. Petersburg, Smolensk or Moscow.

The country’s military, one of Europe’s largest, might join the U.S.-led NATO alliance.

Ukraine “has the potential to really boost the EU’s engine in a way that no other new member could – with the exception of Turkey,” said Amanda Paul, a policy analyst at the European Policy Center, a Brussels think tank. “Ukraine’s new generation of youth are well educated and therefore needed by Europe, which has an aging population.”

Incorporating Ukraine and its 46 million people into the EU would make the bloc a player in Central Asia and the Caucasus, put EU-Russian relations on a much closer footing and bring about an internal EU power shift that would strengthen the influence of Poland and other Eastern European countries at the expense of southern Europe, said Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe, another think tank.

“It’s a pretty big strategic shift we’re talking about,” Techau said.

With the disappearance of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, chances appear to have brightened for Ukraine to sign the formal association agreement with the EU that he spurned in November in favor of a bailout loan from Russia a month later.

That EU deal, in the long run, could prove a bonanza for the resource-rich republic that was one of the former Soviet Union’s industrial dynamos.

In the short term, however, it would be excruciatingly painful for many sectors of Ukraine’s economy and would commit the EU and other international organizations like the International Monetary Fund to spending billions in aid.

Present-day Ukraine, Techau said, is a “basket case economically.”

Closing the EU deal appears much more possible than it did a week ago when Yanukovych was in charge. The Ukrainian parliament speaker who has assumed presidential powers, Oleksandr Turchinov, has said one of his priorities will be “returning to the path of European integration.”

Independent experts, though, caution that path is full of challenges.

Geoffrey Pridham, an emeritus professor who studies post-communist democratization at Bristol University in Britain, said three factors —Ukraine’s dire economic situation, the stirrings of pro-Russian separatist sentiment in the east of the country, and Kremlin meddling — could derail any effort to bring Ukraine closer to the EU.

“It really depends on what Russia decides to do,” said Kataryna Wolczuk, associate professor of international studies at the University of Birmingham. “We haven’t heard the last word from Russia.”

Some European officials have been trying to tamp down expectations of what their side can afford to accomplish. Asked about the chances of Ukraine joining the EU, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told reporters in Berlin on Monday that “we have always said that the conclusion of an association agreement could start a process from which Ukraine might profit in other ways.

“At the same time, we shouldn’t raise expectations and hopes that can’t be fulfilled,” Seibert said.

Were it to join the EU’s ranks one day, Ukraine would have the largest European land area of any member state and be one of the bloc’s most populous countries. It would also be

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