BRUSSELS -- EU heads of state and government met in Brussels on December 15 for a one-day summit to discuss what a senior EU official called a "minefield" of issues faced by the European Union.
The EU leaders are expected to prolong sanctions against Moscow over its interference in Ukraine for another six months, through July 31.
They were also discussing a special statement Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is trying to secure in the hope that it will enable the Netherlands to ratify an agreement on EU-Ukraine political and trade ties despite its rejection by Dutch voters in an April referendum.
The Netherlands, the only EU member state that has not yet ratified the deal, wants a statement clarifying that the pact does not put Ukraine on the path to EU membership and addressing other concerns held by Dutch voters.
"Failure of the ratification would be a huge defeat for the EU, Ukraine [and] a victory for Russia," the news agency AFP quoted an unidentified senior EU official as saying.
Rutte said he was "moderately optimistic" of the prospects for agreement on the statement and said that scuppering the chances for ratification of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement "would be the biggest present ever we could give to Vladimir Putin."
"We are not in a position where we can afford to make such gifts to Putin and we must stick together against him," Rutte said on his way into the summit.
Then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's November 2013 decision not to sign an EU Association Agreement, under pressure from Moscow, ignited the Euromaidan protests that pushed him from power in February 2014.
Russia then seized control of Crimea from Ukraine and backed separatists in a war against Kyiv's forces that has killed more than 9,750 people since April 2014 and persists despite a European-brokered cease-fire and settlement deal.
The EU reached ageement on the pact with Ukraine again in 2014, after Russia's seizure of Crimea and the start of the war in eastern Ukraine.
"We are treading on a minefield. There are so many issues on the agenda that still can go wrong," the EU official said ahead of the summit.
On Syria, the EU leaders are expected to strongly condemn the assault on eastern Aleppo by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and their allies, including Russia.
Francois Fillon, the conservative candidate seen as the front-runner in the French presidential election next spring, said in Brussels that Western dipomacy has failed in Syria and suggested the way to end the more than five-year-old Syria war would be talks, including those reponsible for war crimes.
"I told European leaders that what we are forced to concede today is that Western diplomacy and in particular European diplomacy has failed," Fillon, a former prime minister, told reporters after meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel and leaders of European centre-right parties in Brussels.
He dismissed the option of a U.S. military intervention and said, "The other option is a strong European diplomatic initiative to bring around the table all those who can stop this conflict including those who have committed war crimes today."
The EU leaders were to hold an informal working dinner, without British Prime Minister Theresa May, to discuss how to handle Britain's departure from the bloc.
The one-day summit, reduced from the usual two days, comes in the final month of a tough year for the 28-country bloc during which it has faced challenges to unity such as the Dutch referendum and the Brexit vote in June.
May has promised to trigger the two-year process for Britain's exit from the EU by the end of March 2017.
While EU leaders are expected to prolong the sanctions against Russia for six months with little debate, officials and observers say it may be much harder for backers of the sanctions to forge unity the next time they come up for expiration.
That is in part due to the impending exit of Britain, which has supported the measures, as well as opposition to the sanctions in some other countries and unceratinty about the U.S. stance after President-elect Donald Trump -- who has vowed to seek improved relations with Russia -- takes office in January.