LUXEMBOURG – European Union foreign ministers on Monday deplored what they called yet more Russian interference in Ukraine, but voiced hope an end to the crisis can still be peacefully negotiated.
The co-ordinated action of armed pro-Russian groups occupying government buildings in eastern Ukraine clearly “is something that is being planned and brought about by Russia,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said ahead of a meeting with his EU counterparts.
In retaliation, the 28 EU ministers could decide to add more names to a list of Russian officials whose assets in EU member nations have been frozen. But a dramatic ratcheting up of sanctions wasn’t expected.
“I’ll be arguing today that sanctions, further sanctions, have to be the response to Russia’s behaviour,” Hague said.
Under European Union rules, however, decisions on sanctions must be taken unanimously by all member states.
Frans Timmermans, the Dutch foreign minister, said it was too early to impose more sanctions, but that the EU should be prepared.
Russia has denied involvement, but the EU officials noted the events in eastern Ukraine echoed what had happened in the Crimean Peninsula before Russia annexed it.
“The problem is it looks very, very similar to what happened previously in the Crimea. So you know, if it looks like a horse and it walks like a horse, it’s usually a horse and not a zebra,” said Timmermans.
During a first part of their meeting, the ministers approved up to 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion) in emergency loans to Ukraine, provided it commits to economic and financial reforms.
They also agreed to temporarily abolish or reduce customs duties on Ukrainian imports. The EU, the world’s largest trade bloc, accounts for about one third of Ukraine’s external trade, and an end to tariffs would save Ukrainian exporters almost 500 million euros a year, according to the EU’s executive arm.
The ministers did agree to add four names to the list of people whose assets in the trade bloc have been blocked for allegedly embezzling Ukrainian state property under fugitive pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych.
The new names, which brought the total to 22, including Yanukovych himself, are to be made public Tuesday.
On Thursday, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, is to meet with her U.S., Russian and Ukrainian counterparts in Geneva to discuss ways to ease the crisis. In her remarks to reporters before meeting with the EU ministers, she did not explicitly accuse Russia of engineering the armed unrest in eastern Ukraine, and didn’t even mention the word “sanctions.”
“What we need to do is use the meeting in Geneva to start talking about how to de-escalate the situation,” Ashton said. “It’s absolutely vital we find a suitable way through this that is going to bring peace and stability to the whole country.”