EU preps further sanctions on Russia as 'full-scale war' looms in Ukraine
BRUSSELS — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told European Union leaders at a summit in Brussels that his country is “close to a point of no return ... full scale-war” with Russia, but the EU on Sunday stopped short of imposing new sanctions against Moscow right away.
Instead, the 28-nation bloc's heads of state and government tasked their executive body to “urgently” prepare tougher economic sanctions that could be adopted within a week, according to EU summit Chairman Herman Van Rompuy.
The decision on the sanctions will depend on the evolution of the situation on the ground, but “everybody is fully aware that we have to act quickly,” he added.
In a joint statement, the EU leaders called on Russia to “immediately withdraw all its military assets and forces from Ukraine.”
Angela Mer-kel, Germany's chancellor, insisted the EU would select more targets for sanctions within a week but rejected suggestions that the West could arm Ukraine.
NATO said last week that at least 1,000 Russian soldiers are in Ukraine. Russia denies that. NATO also said Russia has amassed about 20,000 troops just across Ukraine's eastern border, who could rapidly carry out a full-scale invasion.
The fighting between the military and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has claimed 2,600 lives so far, according to U.N. figures.
The United States and the EU so far have imposed sanctions against dozens of Russian officials, several companies as well as the country's financial and arms industry. Moscow has retaliated by banning food imports.
Merkel said the new sanctions would target the same sectors as previous punitive measures, which included an export ban for some high technology and oil exploration equipment.
“If Russia continues to escalate the crisis, it will come with a high cost,” said EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. “It's time for everyone to get down to the business of peace-making. It is not too late, but time is quickly running out.”
Several European leaders had called for additional sanctions at the outset of the meeting in Brussels, but the fear of an economic backlash apparently prevailed and led the bloc to grant Russia another chance to avoid tougher action. New sanctions would have required unanimity among the leaders.
Russia is the EU's No. 3 trading partner and one of its biggest oil and gas suppliers. The EU, in turn, is Russia's biggest commercial partner, making any sanctions more biting than similar measures adopted by the United States.
Ukraine's Poroshenko insisted a strong response was needed to halt the “military aggression and terror.” He warned: “I think that we are very close to the point of no return. The point of no return is full-scale war, which has already happened in the territory controlled by separatists and regular Russian troops.
“Thousands of the foreign troops and hundreds of the foreign tanks are now on the territory of Ukraine,” he told reporters. “There is a very high risk not only for peace and stability for Ukraine, but for the whole ... of Europe.”
Conceding ground in the face of a reinvigorated rebel offensive, Ukraine said it was abandoning a city where its forces have been surrounded by rebels for days. Government forces were pulling back from another it had claimed to have taken control of two weeks earlier.
Statements by Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the national security council, indicate that Ukrainian forces are dealing with increasingly strong resistance from Russian-backed separatist rebels just weeks after racking up significant gains and forcing rebels out of much of the territory they had held.
The office of the Donetsk mayor reported that at least two people died in an artillery attack on one of Donetsk's neighborhoods. Shelling was reported elsewhere in the city, but there was no immediate word on casualties.
European leaders issued dire warnings, reflecting their concern about the most recent military escalation with the opening of a new front by the Russian-backed rebels in southeastern Ukraine.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said Russia's meddling in Ukraine, which seeks closer ties with the EU, amounts to a direct confrontation that requires stronger sanctions.
“Russia is practically in the war against Europe,” she said in English.
Grybauskaite said the EU should impose a full arms embargo, including the canceling of already agreed-upon contracts, but France so far has staunchly opposed that proposal because it has a $1.6 billion contract to build Mistral helicopter carriers for Russia.
British Prime Minister David Cameron warned that Europe shouldn't be complacent about Russian troops on Ukrainian soil.
“Countries in Europe shouldn't have to think long before realizing just how unacceptable that is,” he said. “We know that from our history. So consequences must follow.”
Moscow, meanwhile, is preparing to send a second convoy of humanitarian aid to eastern Ukraine.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday that Moscow has received Kiev's preliminary approval and insisted that it would send aid in coordination with the Red Cross. Lavrov wouldn't say when the aid is likely to be sent, but said it could happen next week.
Russian state TV Rossiya 24 on Saturday showed trucks from the previous convoy at the border being loaded with humanitarian aid that was brought to the area by train. It was unclear when the new convoy could start moving.