European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, January 18, 2018.
European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, January 18, 2018. Reuters / Francois Lenoir

Top European Union diplomats meet on Monday for a last-ditch attempt to agree on Russian oil import sanctions before their leaders meet later in the day, seeking to avoid a spectacle of disunity over the bloc's response to the war in Ukraine.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell sounded a hopeful note ahead of the two-day summit in Brussels, where leaders of the 27 countries will have few concrete results if the impasse over an oil embargo holds up a wider package of sanctions on the table.

"I think that this afternoon, we will be able to offer to the heads of the member states an agreement," Borrell told broadcaster France Info.

Ambassadors failed on Sunday to agree on a proposal that would ban Russian oil delivered to EU countries by sea by the end of this year, but exempt oil delivered by a pipeline that supplies landlocked Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

The EU leaders will declare continued support for Ukraine to help it fend off Russia's assault and they will discuss how to deal with the impact of the conflict, especially the spike in energy prices and an impending food supply crisis.

However, the talks will be overshadowed by their month-long struggle to agree on a sixth round of sanctions against Moscow.

"After Russia's attack on Ukraine, we saw what can happen when Europe stands united," German Economy Minister Robert Habeck said on Sunday. "With a view to the summit tomorrow, let's hope it continues like this. But it is already starting to crumble and crumble again."

Other elements of the latest package of sanctions include cutting Russia's biggest bank, Sberbank, from the SWIFT messaging system, banning Russian broadcasters from the EU and adding more people to a list whose assets are frozen.

The most tangible outcome of the summit will be agreement on a package of EU loans worth 9 billion euro ($9.7 billion), with a small grants component to cover part of the interest, for Ukraine to keep its government going and pay wages for about two months.

A decision on how to raise the money will be made later.

According to a draft of the summit conclusions seen by Reuters, leaders will also back the creation of an international fund to rebuild Ukraine after the war, with details to be decided later, and will touch on the legally fraught question of confiscating frozen Russian assets for that purpose.

The leaders will pledge to accelerate work to help Ukraine move its grain out of the country to global buyers via rail and truck as the Russian navy is blocking the usual sea routes and to take steps to faster become independent of Russian energy.

The draft showed leaders would explore ways to curb rising energy prices, including the feasibility of introducing temporary price caps, to cut red tape on rolling out renewable sources of energy and invest in connecting national energy networks across borders to better help each other.

($1 = 0.9296 euros)

(Editing by Edmund Blair)