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EU foreign ministers tackle Ukraine crisis

EU foreign ministers are under pressure Monday to hit Russia with fresh Ukraine sanctions after a fraught G20 summit and at the same time, get a battered peace plan back on track.

Western leaders in Brisbane at the weekend slammed President Vladimir Putin for Russia’s “unacceptable” intervention in Ukraine and said Moscow faced more punishment as a result.

The West would keep up the pressure for years if necessary, to get Russia to reverse course, said British Premier David Cameron who branded Putin a “bully”.

Analysts said the exchanges plus Putin’s early departure from the summit do not bode well for resolving the crisis, with neither side apparently now interested in maintaining even a semblence of politeness.

On Sunday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said his country was “prepared for total war” as fighting continued around the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

All of which puts new European Union external affairs chief Federica Mogherini, formerly the Italian foreign minister, in the spotlight as she chairs her first foreign ministers meeting Monday.

– Sanctions vs outreach -Diplomatic sources said last week Mogherini wanted to find a way of getting Moscow to live up to commitments it made when backing a Kiev-rebel peace plan in September.

The question “will be how to secure peace on the ground, to ensure all the agreements in the (September Minsk protocols) are respected,” one EU diplomatic source said.

Mogherini had sent a letter to ministers asking how this could best be done, whether they wanted her to pursue “outreach efforts,” perhaps including going to see Putin, the source said.

She wanted ministers to state their views “not only on the situation but also on how we should move on from here,” the source added.

Other diplomatic sources said sanctions would be discussed but they would likely be limited at this stage to adding individuals to the list of those already hit with travel bans and asset freezes.

Getting those initial sanctions agreed by the 28 member states proved extremely difficult amid deep divisions about their effectiveness, cost to the EU and impact on future relations with Russia.

Britain for example took a hard line, since continued, demanding tough economic sector sanctions while Germany and Italy, with major trade and traditional political ties with Moscow, were reluctant.

The tragic shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines plane in July, blamed on rebel’s using a Russian-made missile, notably changed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mind and Berlin went along with sanctions on Russia’s defence, energy and finance sectors.

But having gone that far, there appears little appetite to go further.

– No move either way -“There is still a high degree of agreement in terms of (current) sanctions.

There is a consensus that we will not move in either direction at the moment,” one EU diplomatic source said.

The EU position on its Ukraine sanctions, repeated at several summits, is that it will review them regularly in light of developments on the ground.

Merkel last week pointedly said that while the EU was considering adding names, “beyond that, further economic sanctions are not planned at the moment.

“In Brisbane, she was cautious, saying after lengthy talks with Putin that it was “important to take advantage of every opportunity to talk.

“There is a close agreement among Europeans about Ukraine and Russia,” Merkel added.

The EU foreign ministers are also expected to review the situation in the Middle East amid a growing sense of exasperation in the bloc over Israel’s continued building of new settler homes in east Jersualem.

Mogherini, who visited Israel and the Palestinian territories earlier this month, has condemned the new housing as undercutting a two-state peace deal and as raising questions about Israel’s commitment to a settlement.