SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association)- European Union foreign ministers agreed Thursday to extend by six months targeted sanctions against individuals and companies in Russia and eastern Ukraine, but showed little appetite for broader new economic sanctions on Moscow.
Under Thursday’s decision, EU staffers will have one week to propose new targets to be to hit with an asset freeze and travel ban. Final approval of the new list would take place at the next foreign ministers’ meeting on Feb. 9. The restrictions currently affect 132 people and 28 entities.
The EU sanctions extended Thursday had been due to expire in March, and now will be prolonged at least through September.
The ministers also issued a statement criticizing Moscow for giving “continued and growing” support to the Ukrainian rebels, saying Russia shared “responsibility” for the recent surge in violence.
The statement’s language was softened slightly from an earlier version, partly in deference to Greek concerns, diplomats said.
The ministers met Thursday in response to sharply intensified fighting in eastern Ukraine, including a rocket attack on the city of Mariupol late last week that killed about 30 civilians.
The Ukrainian government blamed Russian-backed separatists for the Mariupol attack, while Moscow accused Ukraine of escalating overall violence in the region.
A senior United Nations official said Monday the Mariupol attack was a war crime since it intentionally targeted civilians.
The Mariupol assault could pave the way for a dangerous new phase of the conflict, said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, who attended Thursday’s EU session and met with Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“Another heinous terrorist act could bring about a whole spiral of violence in a totally different direction,” Mr. Klimkin said.
The ministers also agreed to prepare a tougher response should the situation in eastern Ukraine deteriorate further.
The prospects for the foreign ministers’ meeting had been uncertain after the Greek government’s statements of concern about tough measures against Russia. But Greece opted not to stand in the way.
Two EU diplomats described the a closed-door meeting as smooth.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said afterward that he was happy to sign onto the EU decision, since the bloc wasn’t immediately moving toward new economic sanctions.
Referring to fears that he would complicate the talks, he added, “We are not the bad boy.”
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini appeared relieved that Greece’s concerns had not led to a rupture.
“Of one thing I can be happy tonight, and that is that we kept our unity which is, as we’ve always said, our strength,” she said.
Ms. Mogherini said Mr. Kotzias’s “attitude was extremely constructive” and “this was an extremely positive exercise” that led to “a consensual decision, a substantial decision.”
Still, the discussions weren’t without tension. As the statement’s wording on possible future economic sanctions was watered down, the U.K.’s top diplomat, Minister for Europe David Lidington, at the meeting hinted at a veto. He said it might be better to say nothing on sanctions than to release a weak statement, a view that won little support among ministers, according to people in the discussions.
In the end, Mr. Lidington accepted the changes but said the statement didn’t close off the way to tougher sanctions soon.
“We need to see Minsk implemented. We backed the initiative…to try to find a way forward there, but we also are undertaking that preparatory work in case the heads (of government) do wish to take a tougher response to the aggression that we continue to see,” he said after the meeting.
While the result showed Greece’s unwillingness to immediately block a relatively modest move, it didn’t clarify whether Athens could prove a thorn in the side of any new sanctions push in coming months.
The EU could face a tougher test if more violence erupts and pressure builds to expand “Phase 3” sanctions, which cover broad sectors of the Russian economy such as energy and defense, rather than just individuals and firms.
“I don’t know what we are going to say in future negotiations,” Mr. Kotzias said. “I’m not excluding anything.” He said Greece was prepared to use its veto to block new sanctions if it felt they weren’t in Greece’s interests.
“When sanctions are imposed you must be aware of the consequences,” Mr. Kotzias added. “The sanctions created financial problems in Greece.”
As the ministers were meeting in Brussels, Ukraine and pro-Russia militants signaled that they might hold another round of peace talks on Friday. A spokesman for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said it had received a request for the meeting to take place in Minsk, Belarus’s capital.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said consultations were progressing and it couldn’t confirm its participation, while rebel representatives said they were ready to take part. Other attempts to organize a meeting have fallen apart at the last minute.
The current upsurge in violence violates a cease-fire reached in Minsk in September. Mr. Klimkin, in decrying the new violence Thursday, said attempts by Ukraine’s adversaries to sabotage the Minsk accord were deliberate.
Several ministers said it was crucial for the EU’s member countries to maintain a united front on Russia, despite a rapidly changing landscape and the uncertainty surrounding Greece’s position.
Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius made an emotional appeal for a united front, recalling the presence of international leaders in Paris following the shootings at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
“We all said, ‘Je suis Charlie,’ ” Mr. Linkevicius said. “I’m asking some colleagues who are still [considering] what to do, ‘How many more people should be killed before we say, “Je suis Ukrainian?” ’ ”