By Francesco Guarascio and Gabriela Baczynska
PARIS/BRUSSELS: The European Union announced fresh sanctions against Russia and its ally Belarus on Wednesday but EU leaders are set to rebuff Kyiv's appeal for accelerated membership of the bloc when they meet on Thursday to discuss Russia's war in Ukraine.
The 27-nation EU blacklisted 14 more oligarchs and frozeties with Belarus' central bank and top lenders there, the executive European Commission said on the 14th day of a war that has sent two million Ukrainians fleeing abroad.
Speaking ahead of the leaders' summit on Thursday and Friday at Versailles, near Paris, an EU official left no doubt that Kyiv's appeal to be admitted swiftly to the bloc was a no-go.
"Membership could take a long time," said the official, who is involved in preparing the Versailles talks, adding the leaders still wanted to strengthen ties with Ukraine.
They will discuss boosting Kyiv's links to the EU single market and to Europe's energy grid under ideas for enhanced partnership or "association plus plus", the official said.
That is bound to disappoint Ukraine, which is seeking more Western financial, military and other help as it battles Russia.
"The leaders are unlikely to offer Ukraine candidate status. It is more likely that there will be more cooperation within the association agreement," said a second EU official.
"Offering more is impossible because this is a country that is now engulfed by war, partially under Russian occupation, and maybe at some point even completely under occupation."
Ukraine signed its association agreement with the EU after mass street protests in 2014 overthrew a Russia-allied president who had sought to revive closer ties with Moscow.
In response, Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine and backed armed separatists in the east of the country, triggering Western sanctions on Russia's energy, banking and defence sectors.
The sanctions announced on Wednesday targeted 160 individuals, including parliamentarians and 14 more oligarchs, among them the head of Russia's national carrier Aeroflot.
Altogether, EU restrictions apply to 862 people and 53 entities linked to the invasion of Ukraine. The EU also banned exports of maritime technology to Russia and sought to prevent crypto assets being used to circumvent the sanctions.
The new measures prohibit transactions with the Central Bank of Belarus and exclude three Belarusian banks from the SWIFT banking system: Belagroprombank, Bank Dabrabyt, and the Development Bank of the Republic of Belarus. The bloc has already slapped such measures on seven Russian lenders.
EU leaders will also discuss on Thursday ways of weaning their countries off a heavy reliance on Russian energy imports.
But they are split over how hard to press Russia and also over EU enlargement, with France and the Netherlands prominent sceptics about taking in more members, a process that requires unanimity.
The accession process usually takes years and requires meeting far-ranging economic, political and other criteria.
Western European governments have become more wary of enlargement because ex-communist states such as Poland and Hungary, which joined in 2004, have turned increasingly eurosceptic while benefiting from EU financial aid.