BRUSSELS – The European Union extended by six months an existing set of sanctions against Russian and pro-Russia separatist officials because of the continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and was planning further action, officials said Thursday.
“We have shown that the EU is ready to take further measures,” EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said.
All EU foreign ministers at Thursday’s meeting in Brussels, including the new Greek minister, agreed on the extension, Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said, calling it a “strong signal toward Russia.”
There had been wariness over whether the new radical left-wing government in Greece would immediately fall in line with the actions against Russia.
Consensus was found but some pointed out that instead of mentioning the threat of economic sanctions, the joint statement only mentioned “any appropriate action” was on the table for the Feb. 12 EU summit of government leaders. It was wording seen as a concession to those seeking to keep dialogue going with Russia.
France and some others said that while firmness was essential, room for negotiation had to be kept open.
Denmark was pleased no such rash action was taken Thursday.
“It makes sense that we don’t decide on economic sanctions before we see how Russia will behave. We still have the hope that this will be the push to Russia to go to the negotiation table,” said Danish Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard.
Mogherini insisted though that “When I say any action, it means any.”
She said that on top of Thursday’s decision to extend the first batch of sanctions, the EU was also preparing a list of new officials to be put on the visa ban and asset freeze program, which could be confirmed as soon as Feb. 9.
“We hope that this can help in putting pressure, in particular on Russia, to make positive steps and prevent the negative steps that we have seen in the recent days,” Mogherini said.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said “one might reasonably conclude” that the U.S. is considering additional sanctions on Russia, though he said there were no specific plans to announce at this time. He said the White House was in close contact with European counterparts.
Last March, the EU imposed the first visa bans and asset freezes against officials linked to Russia’s annexation of southern Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. The measures were due to expire this March, and Thursday’s decision will extend them until at least September.
Pressure for more action has been building since last weekend’s attacks on Mariupol, when rockets crashed into a densely populated eastern district, killing 30 and wounding several dozen. International observers said a preliminary assessment indicated the attack had been mounted from rebel-held areas.
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the EU has steadily increased restrictive measures. In July, the EU imposed economic sanctions which, combined with the drop in oil prices, have stung Moscow.
Meanwhile, Russia has extended its walkout from Europe’s human rights watchdog after again losing its right to vote over the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, meeting in the French city of Strasbourg on Wednesday, voted to renew sanctions against Russia at least until April. Russian delegate Alexei Pushkov said Thursday that his delegation’s walkout would continue the rest of the year.
Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.