The European Union has signed the political provisions of an association agreement with Ukraine in Brussels.
The signing, on the second day of a meeting of EU heads of state and government, is a significant symbolic step that brings Kyiv closer to the 28-member union despite Russia's objections.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy said the signing early on March 21 of political chapters of the Association Agreement with Ukraine shows how important the relationship between the two sides is.
"Today, we are signing the [association] agreement's political provisions," Rompuy said. "It shows our steadfast support for the course the people of Ukraine have courageously pursued. Today is but the opening act. We expect to soon sign the agreement's remaining parts, not least the economic provisions. Together with the political ones, they form a single instrument."
Rompuy and other EU leaders signed the agreement with Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on the sidelines of an EU summit in Brussels. The two sides signed three of the seven chapters of the agreement.
"This deal covers the most existential and most important issues, mainly security and defense cooperation," Yatsenyukd said. "This deal will establish a joint decision-making body, which is to facilitate the process of real reforms in my country. And this deal meets the aspirations of millions of Ukrainians that want to be a part of the European Union."
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso described the bloc's intent as the first day of the EU summit concluded in the early hours of the morning on March 21.
"We are already going to sign with the prime minister of Ukraine the political provision of the association agreement and seal the strong political partnership that brings Ukraine and the European Union closer together," Barroso said.
"This is the democratic choice that Ukraine has made. It is our firm intention to sign the remaining parts of the agreement in due course. Europe is committed to Ukraine for the long term," he added.
The signing ceremony came as Russian President Vladimir Putin formally signed the annexation of Crimea, having secured backing in both chambers of the Russian legislature.
The trade portion of the EU accord, which is the bulk of the treaty, is to be signed after May.
Barroso spoke immediately after the EU leaders agreed to slap an asset freeze and travel ban on 12 more Russians and Ukrainians over Moscow's annexation of Crimea.
The names of those targeted were to be made public later on March 21.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy said the new sanctions against Moscow are not intended as "retaliation" but to stop Russian action in Ukraine.
"In the absence of deescalation from Russia, the European Council has decided to expand the list of individuals subject to visa bans and asset freeze," Von Rompuy said. "We put forward another 12 names to the list of 21 agreed to earlier this week. We are also canceling the next EU-Russia summit and member states will likewise cancel regular bilateral summits."
The next EU summit with Russia had been planned for June.
The United States broadened its sanctions
against Moscow earlier on March 20, adding dozens of influential Russians, including a number of individuals within what the U.S. Treasury described as Russian President Vladimir Putin's "inner circle."
Von Rompuy also held out the prospect of additional sanctions if Moscow does not take heed.
"We make clear the failure to settle the crisis peacefully and any steps by Russia to destabilize Ukraine will have far-reaching consequences and by that we mean consequences on relations in a broad-range of economic areas. We asked the [European] Commission and the member states to prepare possible targeted measures," he said.
The EU also said it could send an observer mission to Ukraine if the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) fails to put forward its own mission.
Separately, the EU reconfirmed its intention to further strengthen political association and economic integration with Georgia and Moldova.
The EU noted in a statement that "we confirm our aim to sign the Association Agreements, including the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas, which we initialed in Vilnius last November, no later than June 2014."
The rejection of an association agreement by Viktor Yanukovych in November ignited months of pro-EU street protests in Ukraine and, eventually, unrest that sent him fleeing into Russian exile in late February.
The fast-tracking of the signature ceremonies, which previously had been planned to take place by the end of the year, appeared intended to send a message to Moscow that Brussels remains committed to bringing former Soviet states into its orbit despite Russia's influence.
Russia in 2008 invaded portions of northern Georgia and has close ties with Moldova and the disputed Transdniester region on its eastern edge.
Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, and RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak