Europe's hopes of besting Vladimir Putin and luring Ukraine out of Moscow's orbit through free trade and the prospect of EU membership suffered a setback on Wednesday when the parliament in Kiev balked at a key decision intended to push the country westwards.
The parliament shelved legislation that would have released the former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, from prison to go to Germany for medical treatment.
The failure to act in Kiev was seen as a stalling tactic by the president, Viktor Yanukovych, and suggested a points victory for the Kremlin in its campaign to retain influence in the former Soviet territories between Russia and the EU.
An EU summit at the end of the month in Lithuania is to decide whether to put Ukraine on the path to the EU through the signing of a free-trade pact and what is known as an "association agreement", a first step towards opening EU membership negotiations.
In the ferocious tussle between Moscow and Brussels, Putin scored a significant victory in September when Armenia performed an abrupt volte-face, ditched years of negotiations with the EU, and announced it was joining a Russia-led customs union instead.
Moscow is deploying the weapons of trade wars and gas supplies to coerce the former Soviet republics to shun Europe in favour of closer ties with Russia in what it appears to view as a zero-sum game.
Ukraine, with a population of 46 million and the key transit territory for Russian gas supplies to Europe, is the big prize in this contest.
The gloves appear to be coming off only two weeks before the crucial summit in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.
The Yanukovych administration appeared to be engaged in brinkmanship, Moscow seemed satisfied, and Brussels despondent about developments this week.
Pat Cox of Ireland and Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, both Europe's mediators in Ukraine, were due to report on their mission to the European parliament on Wednesday evening.
All the signs were they would deliver a verdict of mission not yet accomplished.
Germany has made Tymoshenko's release a condition for signing the EU pact with Ukraine.
Lithuania, currently chairing the EU and a former Soviet territory, has argued strongly against tying such a strategic decision to the fate of one person.
Poland and Sweden have also been strong advocates of getting the deal done with Ukraine.
The main criterion Yanukovych has to meet for the European pact is an end to "selective justice", or the manipulation of the judiciary for political ends.
This would apply to the Tymoshenko case; she was jailed for seven years in 2011 for what are widely seen as political reasons.
But the clouds darkened on Monday when the Ukrainian authorities also detained Tymoshenko's chief lawyer for questioning about alleged domestic violence.
Yanukovych also went to Moscow at the weekend for secret talks with Putin.
Cox and Kwasniewski are to deliver a report on their 18-month mission, which will be discussed by EU foreign ministers next Monday before the summit in Lithuania.
Diplomats in Brussels said the chances were receding of striking a deal in Vilnius, but that the brinkmanship could continue until the last minute.
Source: The Guardian