BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union, which just three months ago hoped for a historic new alliance with Ukraine, is likely to call on Thursday for sanctions on Ukrainian officials who ordered a crackdown that killed at least 26 protesters.
A bloody assault on protesters occupying Kiev's Independence Square spurred a dramatic change of heart by EU governments, which until then had been largely sceptical about the effectiveness of imposing sanctions as a way to spur change in Ukraine.
In emergency meetings in Brussels on Wednesday, ambassadors from the EU's 28 states discussed imposing asset freezes and travel bans on Ukrainians responsible for violence, particularly government officials but potentially some protest leaders too, diplomats said.
The ambassadors reached no agreement in Wednesday's meeting and have left it up to foreign ministers to decide at a hastily convened meeting on Thursday whether to back sanctions, the diplomats said.
The United States on Wednesday imposed visa bans on 20 senior Ukrainian government officials believed to be responsible for the violence against protesters.
European leaders, such as French President Francois Hollande and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, left no doubt that EU sanctions were also now on the cards.
Speaking in Paris, Barroso said he told Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in a phone call on Wednesday that Europe remained open to developing its relationship with Ukraine, but "there will undoubtedly be consequences, especially for those who used violence or excessive force."
The foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland will hold meetings with opposition and government figures, including Yanukovich, in Kiev on Thursday before flying to Brussels to brief the other foreign ministers on the situation in Ukraine before they make their decision.
Yanukovich said late on Wednesday that he had agreed a "truce" with opposition leaders.
Just three months ago, EU officials had hoped Ukraine would sign a far-reaching trade and cooperation deal with Brussels, provided certain conditions were met, including the release of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
But Yanukovich stunned the EU in late November by spurning the EU trade deal and instead winning a $15 billion bailout deal from Russia. That move sparked weeks of street protests.
This week's explosion of violence in Kiev was a blow to EU hopes that it could help broker a peaceful settlement.
One EU diplomat said that a group of countries, including Greece, Portugal, Spain, Britain and the Netherlands, were cautious about going ahead with sanctions because of concern about breaking off dialogue with the Ukrainians.
Some officials worry that sanctions have not been effective in the past, notably in Belarus, Ukraine's northern neighbour.
But other diplomats said consensus was building in favour of sanctions.
"Nobody is willing to let the ministers fly in tomorrow and achieve nothing. But specific decisions will have to be taken after we get feedback from the three ministers who went to Kiev," said another diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He said those discussed as possible targets for sanctions included oligarchs, as well as some ministers, possibly defence, justice or interior, but no decision had been made.
Diplomats said Yanukovich himself was unlikely to be singled out for sanctions for now because EU governments did not want to close off dialogue with him.
(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott, Martin Santa, Justyna Pawlak, Barbara Lewis and Luke Baker; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)