Ukraine has long pursued the idea of membership in the bloc, but with no luck. President Leonid Kuchma recently declined to sign an "action plan" to map out Kyiv's participation in the EU's European Neighborhood Policy, saying it offers nothing new to his country.
Kuchma's apparent decision to give up EU and NATO membership as strategic objectives is seen as another reaction to cold-shouldering by Brussels.
Commenting on relations with both Ukraine and Russia, chief European Commission spokesman Reijo Kemppinen said on 27 July that the EU seeks closer ties, but is not offering membership.
"This amendment [to Ukraine's defense doctrine] was made because neither NATO nor the EU at this moment are ready to give a clear signal about the timeframe [for Ukraine's entry into NATO]." -- Ukrainian Deputy Foreign minister Oleh Shamshur
"Insofar as our relationship with Ukraine and Russia is concerned, we have good and close relations with both countries, and we hope they will be even closer in the future. Membership of the European Union has never been in the offing for either of those countries, nor has it formally been discussed as a prospect," Kemppinen said.
Kuchma's decree replacing EU and NATO membership in Ukraine's defense doctrine with the more vague aim of "Euro-Atlantic integration" was posted on the Ukrainian government's website on 26 July. The decree substitutes a new goal of "deepening" Kyiv's relations with the blocs for its earlier goal of "joining" them.
Oleh Shamshur is Ukraine's deputy foreign minister. "This amendment [to Ukraine's defense doctrine] was made because neither NATO nor the EU at this moment are ready to give a clear signal about the timeframe [for Ukraine's entry into NATO]," Shamshur said.
But Shamshur said Kyiv has not radically changed course. "We do not see any reasons for claims that Ukraine has changed its European and Euro-Atlantic course, since the ultimate goal of European integration has not changed, is not changing, and I don't think it will change. The key word about European integration is still there [in the defense doctrine]," Shamshur said.
Kuchma's decree coincides with a visit to Kyiv by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin used a speech on 26 July to warn foreign "agents" not to work against the integration of Russia and Ukraine.
Observers in Brussels note Kuchma has long tried to play off Russia against the EU. Last year, the EU sharply criticized Ukraine's moves toward setting up a free-trade zone with Russia and Kazakhstan, among others. EU officials then said it could compromise Ukraine's future ties with the bloc.
Officials in Brussels now indicate this should be read as the EU limiting its offer to Ukraine to joining the bloc's neighborhood policy.
Emma Udwin, an external relations spokeswoman at the European Commission, said the offer could add a "great deal" to existing relations. She also made clear Ukraine is not seen as a case deserving special treatment.
"We are currently pursuing links with Ukraine through our neighborhood policy -- through the European Neighborhood Policy -- which is a policy that closes no doors but which concentrates on the current situation, which is that Ukraine is one of our neighbors -- post-enlargement -- and which offers a great deal to any one of our neighbors that wishes to take up the offer and work with us," Udwin said.
Udwin stressed that "there are plenty of things that can be offered outside of [EU] membership."
Speaking privately, one EU diplomat noted the bloc sees significant shortfalls in the use Ukraine has made of its current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the bloc. Kyiv's desire for closer ties -- perhaps an association agreement, which is generally seen as a precursor to membership -- is therefore seen as unwarranted.
The European Neighborhood Policy offers EU neighbors a chance to integrate their markets so that they can eventually fully benefit from the bloc's four core freedoms -- the free movement of goods, capital, services, and people. Only political decision-making would remain a closed-off area for the neighbors.
Officials in Brussels attribute the EU's relative coolness towards Kyiv largely to the questionable democratic and human rights record of the Kuchma administration. One source noted that the EU is "more interested in what countries do than what they say."
Presidential elections in September are seen as a key test for Ukraine.