By Raushan Nurshayeva and Alexei Anishchuk
ASTANA (Reuters) - The presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus signed a treaty on Thursday creating a vast trading bloc which they hope will challenge the economic might of the United States, the European Union and China.
The treaty forging the Eurasian Economic Union will come into force on Jan. 1, once it has passed the formality of being approved by the three former Soviet republics' parliaments.
"Our meeting today of course has a special and, without exaggeration, an epoch-making significance," Russian President Vladimir Putin said shortly before the treaty was signed in the Kazakh capital, Astana.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev said he saw the new union as "a bridge between the East and the West".
Putin, whose hopes of securing a place in history with the union have been dented by Ukraine's refusal to join, denies the union is an attempt to recreate the Soviet empire which collapsed in 1991.
The new union's three countries have a combined population of more than 170 million people, and a gross domestic product between them of around $2.7 trillion. Kazakhstan and Russia are both oil producers.
The treaty deepens the ties forged when the three countries took the initial step of creating a customs union in 2010. It will guarantee free transit of goods, services, capital and workforce and coordinate policy for major economic sectors.
Ukraine opted not to join the union after its Moscow-leaning president was ousted in February, and its relations with Moscow are severely strained following Russia's annexation of Crimea.
Other former Soviet republics have also refused to sign up for the union, although Armenia and Kyrgyzstan are considering joining.
(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Almaty, Writing by Timothy Heritage, Editing by Elizabeth Piper)