The European Union's top diplomat Josep Borrell will on Tuesday start a visit to Ukraine as tensions with Russia over its military build-up near the border remain high.
The visit will see Borrell first travel to east Ukraine and the line of contact where clashes between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists continue to take place, nearly seven years after the conflict first erupted.
He will be accompanied by Ukrainian Foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba before travelling to the capital Kyiv to meet the country's authorities.
"His first foreign trip of this year underscores EU's strong support to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity at a time when the country is confronted with Russian military build-up and hybrid actions," a statement from the EU Commission released on Monday read.
For geopolitics expert Cyrille Bret from the Delors Institute in Paris, "it is very, very important that the High Representative of the European institutions dedicates his first trip of the year to Kyiv and the frontline".
"It is a European crisis and the solution is European in that framework, in that respect," Bret told Euronews.
The visit comes less than a week before US and Russian officials meet in Geneva with the tensions along the border high on the agenda. NATO and Russia talks are also scheduled to take place on January 10.
About 100,000 Russian troops and military equipment are amassed along the border with US intelligence warning last month that Moscow may be preparing for an invasion.
The Kremlin has denied this but demanded that a Ukrainian membership of NATO be ruled out and that the alliance removes any offensive weaponry from countries in the region.
US President Joe Biden assured his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a telephone conversation on Sunday that "the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine."
Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, meanwhile discussed the issue on Monday with Foreign Ministers from the "Bucharest Nine" — Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.
"The Secretary and Foreign Ministers discussed Russia's destabilising military buildup along Ukraine's border; the need for a united, ready, and resolute NATO stance for the collective defense of Allies; and transatlantic cooperation on issues of concern," a readout of the call stated.
The European Union's role in the Washington-Moscow negotiations
Since EU representatives were not invited to the talks between the US and Russia, many experts say that the bloc's role might have become "diminished".
"This is partly, I guess, due to the Russian policy that is focussing on the US and has identified Washington as the partner for communication, but also to the security and military aspects of the Russian-Ukrainian relations -- or tensions -- that have now become pre-eminent and which therefore make the US a more important actor for Kyiv," explained Andreas Umland, an analyst at the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
However, "most Ukrainians would rather define their country as part of the European Union and the US as 'farther away', so to say," Umland added.
Meanwhile, the visit has another meaning for Ukrainians, who wonder how far the EU will support the country in the future, especially in economic terms.
"The EU can be a very potent partner for Ukraine, and Ukraine wants much more assistance and cooperation from the EU than it currently receives," Umland said.
"The problem with these many good words that have been uttered by Borrell and by many others is that they are not always congruent to the actions that the EU has been taking in the last eight years."
"Ukrainians are now a little bit wary about such visits as symbolic means of support, and they are looking for concrete answers about what the EU will do," he said.
However, Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Funds in Brussels, believes that the negotiations between Russia and the US will not result in an agreement.
"Fundamentally, my expectation of these negotiations are that they will fail because the premise of these negotiations, as laid out by the Russian government, are actually unacceptable and basically amount to an ultimatum," he told Euronews.
And should the Biden-Putin talks fail, Washington will most likely attempt to impose harsh sanctions on Russia -- but to do so, the US would need the full support of the European Union, which remains divided on how to best deal with Russia.