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EU seals Ukraine pact ahead of Kiev summit
[BRUSSELS] The EU formally approved on Tuesday a landmark cooperation accord with Ukraine meant to counter a hostile Russia ahead of a high-profile summit in Kiev.
The decision by the 28 European Union member states came hours before Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was due to meet EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini in Brussels.
The EU states said they had decided to formally conclude ratification of the Association Agreement with Ukraine, effective September 1.
"This is the final step of the ratification process through which the EU and Ukraine commit to a close, long-term relationship in all main policy areas," a statement said.
"The Association Agreement is the main tool for bringing Ukraine and the EU closer together: it promotes deeper political ties, stronger economic links and the respect for common values," it said.
The European Union and Ukraine agreed the accord in late 2014 when EU-Moscow relations were at their lowest point for decades.
Ukraine's then-president Viktor Yanukovych had tried to back out of the association agreement in late 2013, sparking mass pro-EU protests which led to his toppling months later.
Moscow in turn annexed Crimea and backed pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine where more than 10,000 people have since died in fighting with government forces.
But both sides have made efforts to rebuild ties, with Mr Lavrov's visit to Brussels on Tuesday an example of the tentative detente.
Ms Mogherini has said repeatedly that the EU wants to improve relations but Moscow must first help implement the Minsk ceasefire accords to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The EU has also imposed sanctions against Russia for its intervention in Ukraine, sparking a sharp response from President Vladimir Putin who says they are both ineffective and counter-productive.
EU chief Donald Tusk and European Commission head Jean Claude Juncker will attend the summit hosted by Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev on Wednesday and Thursday.
Mr Poroshenko says Ukraine's future lies with the West, not with its Soviet-era master, and wants the strategically placed country to join the EU and Nato, like most of the former communist states of central and eastern Europe.
Mr Putin regularly berates the West for encroaching on Moscow's traditional sphere of influence and warns that Nato's expansion represents a direct security threat to Russia.
EU association agreements are often the prelude to later membership and are meant to bring a country's political, economic and civil society norms into line with those of the bloc.