Wary EU balks at pledge of integration for Ukraine

European leaders today balked at making any firm pledges to Ukraine on eventually joining the EU, wary of antagonising a belligerent Russia in the midst of the Georgia crisis.

A long-scheduled EU-Ukraine summit in Paris gained in urgency because of Russia's Georgia campaign and fears that Ukraine could become the new frontline in a potentially dangerous contest between Russia and the west.

The summit, hosted by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France a few hours after he returned from a bout of tense shuttle diplomacy between Moscow and Tbilisi, agreed to work towards a new EU-Ukraine accord next year that could make it easier for Ukrainians to travel to the rest of Europe. But Kiev's hopes of firmer integration pledges from Europe as a hedge against Russian pressure were dashed.

"This is the maximum that we could do," said Sarkozy.

"We are convinced that in 2009 we will sign a very symbolic document cementing relations between Ukraine and the EU," said Ukraine's president, Viktor Yushchenko, who is also in the middle of a power struggle with his prime minister, Yuliya Tymoshenko.

The government in Kiev collapsed last week amid disputes over who should run Ukraine, over Georgia, and Kiev's relations with Moscow, with Yushchenko accusing his prime minister of failing to take a stand on the Georgia crisis because she is seeking the Kremlin's help in a campaign to unseat him.

"The president is demanding that Tymoshenko take a position on Georgia because she is being elusive," said Kostyantyn Gryshchenko, Ukraine's ambassador in Moscow. "She is using a big foreign policy issue for domestic politics."

The perennial political instability in Ukraine bolstered the many opponents within the EU of stronger links between Kiev and Brussels. If Yushchenko calls new parliamentary elections, they will be the sixth in four years.

The Germans and the Dutch are, for different reasons, especially hostile to Ukraine's EU aspirations, while the relatively new EU members of central Europe, backed by Britain, pressed for stronger pledges to Ukraine.

In the midst of the Georgia crisis, David Miliband, the foreign secretary, went to Kiev a fortnight ago to deliver a speech highly critical of Russia and strongly supporting Ukraine's hopes of integrating with the rest of Europe.

Ukrainian officials pushed for a language in the summit statement declaring that Ukraine's future lay in the EU, but failed.

"The EU needs Ukraine in to send a strong signal to Russia that it is a part of Europe," said Gryshchenko.

Russia's conduct of its Georgia war has thrust Ukraine to the forefront of western strategic policy-making. The large country between Europe and Russia has a sizeable Russian minority, Russia's Black Sea fleet is based in a Ukrainian port under lease arrangements, the ethnically Russian region of Crimea is in Ukraine, and Moscow is vehemently opposed to Ukraine, like Georgia, joining Nato.

Ukraine itself is ambivalent about joining the west if it means turning its back on Russia.

"You can take a horse to water but you can't make it drink," said Tomas Valasek of the Centre for European reform thinktank of Ukrainians' pro-EU sentiment.

The Paris summit took place within hours of Sarkozy's return from Moscow and Tbilisi where he obtained a promise of Russian withdrawal of troops from Georgia, though not from the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

European officials said the four hours of talks with Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, were extremely tense, with Sarkozy threatening to walk out when faced with Russian recalcitrance.

Medvedev was said to have refused to commit to a Russian pullout. "Let's go. We can't negotiate about this. We can't accept the invasion of an independent country," Sarkozy said, according to EU officials.

Moscow said today it would be keeping almost 8,000 troops in the two separatist parts of Georgia.

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