EU to expand sanctions as new Ukraine talks loom

29th January 2015, Comments 0 comments

The EU prepared Thursday to expand sanctions against Russia as Ukraine's warring parties announced fresh truce talks after a surge in fighting between Kiev and Kremlin-backed rebels.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev warned meanwhile that the threat of further sanctions risked turning the new Cold War into a "hot" armed conflict between Moscow and the West with global repercussions.

During talks in Brussels, EU foreign ministers looked set to overcome opposition from Greece's new radical government and add to a blacklist of individuals who face travel bans and asset freezes over the conflict.

"We are going to reinforce the sanctions that target the separatists and those who support them, including in Russia," France's European affairs minister Harlem Desir told reporters.

European Union leaders ordered ministers to discuss new sanctions after fresh fighting in the key port city of Mariupol that threatened to turn the nine-month conflict in eastern Ukraine into all-out war.

Ministers may recommend extending through to September sanctions initially imposed on Russian and Ukraine figures after Moscow annexed Crimea in March 2014, according to a draft document seen by AFP.

They could also examine the possibility of widening much tougher sectoral measures hurting the Russian economy which were introduced after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July.

Greece's new government has so far refused to go along, reviving fears that the closeness of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras's Syriza party to Russia could lead it to block further measures.

EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said she would "work to keep our unity and exercise the maximum of pressure to stop the fighting and to reach a ceasefire."

Kiev and local officials said six civilians and five Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the last 24 hours, adding to the UN's confirmed death toll of 5,100 for the conflict in the former Soviet state.

- Gorbachev 'hot war' warning -

The West says Russian forces are in Ukraine supporting the rebels, a charge the Kremlin denies, and has urged Moscow repeatedly to respect the terms of a peace deal signed in the Belarussian capital Minsk in September.

In a new development, the contact group of representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE will hold further peace talks in Minsk on Friday, the Belarus foreign ministry said.

Ukraine's western-backed President Petro Poroshenko had earlier called for urgent talks in Minsk, saying they should lead to an "an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the line of contact."

Pro-Russian militants last week pulled out of peace talks and announced a new offensive that was followed by a rocket attack on the strategic port of Mariupol in which 31 civilians died.

Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, appeared to pin the blame on the West for the worsening situation, saying sanctions which had cut Russian access to US and European capital markets threatened to spiral into open warfare.

"Where will that lead all of us? A Cold War is already being waged openly. What's next?" the 83-year-old Nobel peace prize winner asked. "Unfortunately I cannot say for sure that a Cold War will not lead to a 'hot' one."

Washington and its European allies believe Russian President Vladimir Putin backs the rebels in revenge for last year's ousting of Kiev's former Kremlin-backed government.

The rebels have made good their threat to push into the important eastern industrial lands that still answer to Kiev, with fears that they could open up a land corridor linking Russia to the annexed Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

Poroshenko's office said US Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday "expressed his firm support for the Ukrainian president's actions and spelled out the possibility of expanding sanctions against Russia in case of a further escalation."

Western sanctions combined with a slump in oil prices have plunged Russia into recession and seen Standard and Poor's slap a "junk" rating on Moscow's debt.

© 2015 AFP

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