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EU, Germany downplay sanctions option in Ukraine conflict

Anatolii Stepanov, AFP I An OSCE observer looks at a Ukrainian Armoured Personnel Carrier near the eastern city of Soledar on February 27

The European Union’s priority is to bolster the Ukraine conflict's fragile ceasefire, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said on Friday, in remarks that downplayed the threat of fresh sanctions against Russia.

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Mogherini’s comments came ahead of Russia and Ukraine’s agreement to double the number of observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe or OSCE, a rights and security watchdog.

France and Germany brokered a second Minsk peace agreement with Russia and Ukraine last month, which so far seems to be holding better than a September deal but the situation remains fragile.

“So far the ceasefire has been starting, not perfect with some violations still, but for sure the trend is a positive one,” Mogherini said ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Riga, Latvia.

“We need ... to strengthen the OSCE mission that is on the ground now.”

The EU has joined the United States in imposing sanctions on Russia but has found it increasingly difficult to agree on tougher measures as many member states rely heavily on Russia for energy.

Several member states, including Germany and Italy, were reluctant to do more until a Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down over Ukraine in July 2014, an act blamed on pro-Russian rebels in the east.

The truce has eased pressure for new sanctions, but the EU must soon decide whether to extend economic curbs on Russia, which expire in July.

Asked about the possibility of imposing additional sanctions against Moscow, Mogherini said: “Obviously they are always there."

“They will not be lifted until something really good happens on the ground and on the other side we are always ready to increase the pressure if needed,” she said.

“But I don’t start from that. I start from the positive actions the European Union can do now to make things work.”

New sanctions not the issue

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, also in Riga for the EU foreign ministers' meeting, echoed Mogherini's point about the ceasefire, saying more needed to be done to make the accord work.

Sanctions were not on the agenda of the informal meeting, which has been formatted for discussion, not decisions.

“The German position is very clear this depends on implementation of the Minsk accord,” Steinmeier said.

“At the moment, we are trying to accelerate again the process. That is the issue in the foreground and not the question if there will be new sanctions.”

Russia denies accusations by Ukraine and Western governments that it has been sending troops and weapons to support separatists.

Russia, Ukraine agree to double OSCE observers

Russia and Ukraine agreed to double the number of OSCE observers to 1,000 after Ukraine asked for help implementing the ceasefire in the eastern part of the country, Steinmeier said.

That agreement, he said, was reached after a discussion at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin involving officials from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. Steinmeier added that the OSCE observers should be allowed access to locations where heavy weapons are being stored.

The second-highest ranking US diplomat warned on Friday that pressure to arm Ukraine would increase if aggression from pro-Russian separatists persisted, even though Moscow would easily be able to send more weapons into the country than the West.

Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told German radio Deutschlandfunk (DLF) that the United States was already working on supplying Kiev with non-lethal equipment, including $130 million worth of protective vests, night-vision goggles and other equipment.

“But if the aggression continues, I think there will be more and more pressure to give them other means to protect themselves,” he said in the DLF interview.

With both the government in Kiev and the rebels in eastern Ukraine accusing each other of violating last month's ceasefire, US President Barack Obama and European leaders are weighing their next steps to try to halt a conflict that has killed about 6,000 people since last April.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)

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