The European Union is expected to offer Ukraine encouragement about closer ties but will stop short of making any firm commitments on future membership at a summit in Paris on Tuesday.
The Paris summit is not set to mark a rite of passage for Kiev
In the light of the crisis between Russia and Georgia in the Caucasus and fears of a resurgent Russia, Ukraine has no option but to join the European Union eventually, and the bloc should say so to help the country's leaders continue long-term reforms, Kiev's ambassador to Moscow said Monday.
"We are a European country, our place is in Europe," Konstyantyn Gryshchenko said in Brussels, on the eve of an EU-Ukraine summit in Paris on Tuesday, Sept 9. Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko and his foreign minister are due to attend the summit along with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency.
Kiev's goal is to become a fully-fledged member of the European Union. Before that can happen it must be named an official candidate nation.
But officially at least, the EU sees the country's political instability as a major sticking-point, as chief foreign policy envoy Javier Solana made evident in the run-up to the summit in Paris, its new location after a last minute change of plans on Monday.
"Bilateral relations between Ukraine and the EU are going in the right direction. The Ukrainian economy is developing well, there is growth, the inflation rate is gradually coming under control. But we also have our reservations as far as the political situation is concerned. This needs to stabilize. Parliamentary life has to normalize."
Last week saw the collapse of a shaky coalition between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, reinforcing the EU's misgivings about the country's political situation. Member states also face waning public support for the expansion of the bloc.
Fear of antagonizing Russia
Solana is concerned about political instability in Ukraine
But Ukraine expert Amanda Akcakoca from the European Policy Centre, a Brussels think-tank, believes that concern about further straining ties with Russia is primarily staying the EU's hand.
"The EU can find a million pretexts, but I think the fear of Russia is the main reason. Giving Ukraine the prospect of joining the EU, bringing the country closer to the West, does not exactly endear it to Moscow. And that, of course, triggers certain qualms in some EU countries," she told DW-Radio.
At the summit, the EU side is likely to offer to conclude an "association agreement" with Ukraine. A draft declaration prepared by Brussels-based diplomats ahead of the EU-Ukraine summit says that this would leave open the possibility of further developments between the two sides.
The leaders are also set to announce the launch of a dialogue aimed at eventually achieving a visa-free regime between EU and Ukraine.
Tale of two camps
Ukraine is a key energy transit route
Up to now, Poland, the Czech Republic, the Nordic states, Britain and the Baltic states have been broadly positive about embracing Ukraine, while Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Austria have been reluctant to do so. One sensitive issue is migration. The Benelux countries and Spain are fearful of receiving higher numbers of Ukrainian workers. But worries about threatening energy supplies from Russia also play a role.
Tomas Valasek, from the London-based think-tank Centre for European Reform, told Reuters news agency that the European Union needed to send a clearer message to Ukraine. He described Ukraine as the EU's most important neighbor given its size, location and its power to influence other countries strategically important in terms of ensuring the security of the EU's future energy supplies.
"If it can successfully Europeanize ... it will clearly demonstrate to the Central Asian republics, to Azerbaijan and to Moldova and others that it's possible to be a former Soviet republic and a modern Western country," he said.
"It will show that there is nothing inevitable about former Soviet republics always being in the Russian orbit. That's why it's important for the EU to get it right."
Akcakoca, of the European Policy Center, also believes Ukrainian accession would be of benefit to the EU.
"It will improve security at the EU's external borders. Ukraine has a very dynamic economy, a modern army. Ukraine has already taken part in manoeuvres within the auspices of EU security and defense policy on a number of occasions. I think that up to now the EU has profited more from Ukraine than vice versa," she said.