BRUSSELS European Union leaders said on Friday the door to a closer partnership with Ukraine remained open but not necessarily for the current Ukrainian leadership, which chose a bailout from Russia in preference to a trade deal with Brussels.
EU leaders held a post mortem on Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's last-minute U-turn, which dashed the bloc's ambition to draw a giant eastern neighbor into its orbit by offering a trade and aid pact to the former Soviet republic.
"Europe is open for Ukrainian people but not necessarily for this government. That's the message," said Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who hosted a summit in Vilnius last month at which Yanukovich spurned an association agreement with the EU.
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said that in the long run, the EU offered Ukrainians the most reliable road to a "modern, open, independent" country.
"What we see in Maidan (Square in Kiev) is a yearning for a better future," he said of protests demanding Yanukovich's departure and a deal with the EU. "The thirst for freedom will not disappear."
Grybauskaite reflected the ambiguity in the 28-nation bloc about whether to offer Ukraine the ultimate prospect of EU accession or only an economic partnership that would stop short of membership rights.
"Europe is open to the Ukrainian people, and any time the Ukrainian state is ready, with all conditionalities, to join the European Union in the future, or to sign an association treaty, we will be open for it," she said.
While former communist countries that have joined the EU see Ukraine as a candidate for membership in the long run, many west European states, including France and Germany, are suffering from enlargement fatigue and think any membership commitment to Ukraine goes too far.
Ukrainian officials and diplomats in Kiev said fierce Russian economic pressure and the unwillingness of the EU and the International Monetary Fund to offer more aid and be more flexible prompted Yanukovich to change his mind.
EU officials made the choice harder for Yanukovich by insisting he free his biggest political rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, to go abroad for medical care.
Brussels has also sent mixed signals about the amount of aid Ukraine stood to receive - between 600 million euros and up to 19 billion euros over seven years. But there was no hint of introspection in EU leaders' public comments on Friday.
The Ukrainian leader reached a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week on a $15 billion bailout and a big cut in the cost of Russian gas supplies to Kiev.
It is not clear what Moscow gained in return, beyond the satisfaction of blocking the EU's geopolitical outreach to a country it regards as the cradle of its own nation. Yanukovich made no commitment to join a Russian-dominated customs union.
The Ukrainian leader, whose Party of Regions is strongest in the eastern Russian-speaking part of the country, also had to juggle his own political survival and the economic interests of his family and oligarch supporters.
Other EU leaders made clear they want to continue working towards a free trade agreement under which Kiev would adopt many of Brussels' single market rules, but they rejected calls from Yanukovich's government to offer more financial help.
"Let's not give in to a kind of bidding war," French President Francois Hollande said. "It's not about paying more. What is at stake is that Europe is willing to help Ukraine with a trade agreement."
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have demonstrated in sub-zero temperatures against the snub to the EU, calling for closer ties with the wealth European bloc which they associate with democracy, human rights and cleaner government.
(Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski, Robert-Jan Bartunek, Adrian Croft; Writing by Paul Taylor; editing by Luke Baker)