European Union leaders met Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko for talks in Paris on Tuesday where the bloc was set to offer Kiev closer ties but stop short of a firm membership pledge.
Despite concern about Russian moves to roll back Western influence after intervening in Georgia, many EU states are unwilling to offer such a pledge, given waning public support for EU expansion, Ukraine's poor record on reform and a desire to avoid further straining ties with Moscow.
A political crisis in Ukraine that saw the collapse last week of a shaky coalition between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has reinforced such caution.
"Make no mistake, the association agreement is a very serious, far-reaching sign to stand with the Ukrainians in this difficult time," EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said of the accord being offered to Kiev.
"The membership perspective is not there, but at the same time we are not prejudging the future," she told Reuters in a telephone interview before the half day of talks in Paris.
Ukraine is a key energy transit route for Europe and seen as crucial to the long-term goal of the EU to secure its energy supply, for which it relies heavily on Russian oil and gas.
A draft summit text obtained by Reuters noted Ukraine's European aspirations and added that "gradual convergence of Ukraine with the EU in political, economic and legal areas will contribute to further progress in EU-Ukraine relations".
The use of the term "association agreement" can imply the long-term possibility of future entry, while in the near term the EU will launch talks on a visa-free regime for Ukraine.
An explicit statement of future membership prospects has been blocked by the Benelux countries, with Germany and Italy also not keen, not least to avoid straining ties with Moscow.
Russia has been incensed by the pledge of eventual NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, another former Soviet state, and many see this as the spur for its intervention in Georgia.
EU president France switched the location from the resort of Evian to Paris due to time constraints caused by a mission to Russia and Georgia by President Nicolas Sarkozy, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
Russia agreed with Sarkozy on Monday to withdraw its troops from Georgia proper within a month, but there was no commitment to scale back its military presence in two Georgian separatist regions.
Güncelleme Tarihi: 09 Eylül 2008, 17:37