European Union leaders have said that while the door remains open to a stronger partnership with Ukraine, upgraded ties would not necessarily be achievable under the current government in Kiev.

At a summit in Brussels on Friday, EU leaders were ambiguous about the future of relations with Ukraine, after President Viktor Yanukovich turned down a trade deal with Brussels last month in a controversial move that set off mass protests in the former Soviet country.

"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 in November at which Yanukovich turned down the EU deal.

Hundreds of thousands of pro-EU protesters have taken to the streets of Kiev against the move. Protesters were still occupying the city's Independence Square on Friday in the hope of persuading the government to go back on its decision.

But questions remain in the EU about whether to offer Ukraine a chance to join the 28-member bloc, or only an economic partnership that would stop short of membership rights.

At the Brussels summit, some EU leaders said they want to continue working towards a free trade agreement that would force Kiev to adopt many of Brussels' single market rules, but rejected calls from Yanukovich's government to offer Ukraine more financial aid.

"We of course are ready to invite Ukraine to [move] closer to the European Union and it is up to the Ukrainian people what do they want,"  Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen said. "Of course we want that people could make a fair and clear decision themselves."

'Brotherly nation'

Xavier Bettel, prime minister of Luxembourg, said the EU should keep Ukrainians' hopes alive without joining a bidding war.

"We're not carpet traders where it's a question who is bidding more," he said. "It's not about who offers the most."

Earlier this week, Ukraine reached a deal with Russia on a $15bn economic bailout and a big cut in the cost of Russian gas supplies. Russian President Vladimir Putin said the deal was a "brotherly" act and was not meant to keep Kiev away from the EU.

"Now we see that Ukraine is in difficult straits ... if we really say that they are a brotherly nation and people then we must act like close relatives and help this nation," Putin told his annual news conference.

"In no way this is related with the Maidan [protests in central Kiev] or the European talks with Ukraine."

The EU has accused Russia of applying pressure on former Soviet states, testing strained EU-Russia relations.

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said on Friday that European leaders would "speak openly" with Russia at an EU-Russia summit scheduled for the end of January.

"The future of Ukraine lies with Europe," Van Rompuy said. "One can try to slow it down, to block it, but in the end no one can prevent it."

"We have made it abundantly clear that the EU's agreements with partner countries in the region are not at Russia's expense. On the contrary, it is also set to benefit from it," he said.

Source: Agencies