11:38 am - Tuesday January 19, 2021

EU mulls tougher sanctions against Russia

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The European Union was mulling tougher sanctions Friday against Russia, following reports that Moscow had sent hundreds of regular troops to eastern Ukraine to support separatist militias.

EU leaders at a summit Saturday in Brussels could task experts with drawing up new sanctions.

Among the tougher calls could be one from Britain, which according to Bloomberg news agency was pressing EU leaders to shut Russia out of the SWIFT banking transaction system, one of its main connections to the international financial system.

Bloomberg cited an unnamed British government official in the story.

Many of the EU’s 28 foreign ministers voiced support for fresh sanctions as they gathered for informal talks in Milan. Several called Russian moves in Ukraine an invasion; German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier avoided the term — as did the United States.

“It is really unacceptable to continue to stir up trouble in a neighbouring country,” Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said as he arrived for the two-day meeting in the Italian city. “If Russia does not change its stance, then we can’t do anything but sharpen ours.” Danish Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard agreed — but noted that ultimately the EU wants Russia “to come to the negotiating table and to find a peaceful solution.” Steinmeier warned that the situation was getting out of control: “Reason has to finally prevail, and I say that especially with an eye to the Russian side.” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius suggested supporting Ukraine with “military material.” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, mindful that Ukraine is not NATO member, said it was an issue for the NATO summit next week in Wales.

“It is clear that NATO cannot support Ukraine with troops. … But we need your assistance to stop (Russia’s) aggression,” Ukrainian Ambassador Ihor Dolhov said after meeting with NATO ambassadors in Brussels.

In Washington, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved the next tranche — 1.4 billion dollars — of financial aid, part of the 17-billion-dollar commitment made in April. So far, 4.51 billion dollars have been disbursed from the loan package.

NATO has said it believes “well over” 1,000 Russian soldiers are fighting in Ukraine. Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine boast of up to 4,000 Russian soldiers.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the allegations unfounded and compared NATO’s satellite imaging to computer game pictures, according to Russian news agencies.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called Moscow’s denials “hollow.” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced legislation that could lead to the revival of the country’s bid for NATO membership.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is expected to attend next week’s NATO summit.

Russia has long been wary of closer ties between Ukraine and NATO.

President Vladimir Putin compared the Ukrainian government’s military campaign against the separatists to the Nazi invasion during World War II.

He told a youth forum in Russia’s Tver region that Moscow will not be drawn into a large—scale conflict but must “always be ready to repel any aggression against Russia.” “Our partners must understand that is better not to mess with us,” he said.

US President Barack Obama has ruled out US military action.

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso had a “frank exchange of views” with Putin by telephone, condemning alleged Russian incursions onto Ukraine soil.

NATO member Poland refused overflight rights to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, forcing his plane to fly back to the Slovak capital Bratislava, according to Russian news agencies.

A Russian official called it a “grave violation of international norms and a blasphemous gaffe.” A spokesman for Poland’s aviation authority said the denial was due to Shoigu’s flight being registered as civilian, despite flying in a military plane.

Putin for the first time addressed pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine, calling them the militia of “Novorossia” (New Russia) — an expression that recalls Russian territorial ambitions in the neighbouring country, where it has already seized Crimea.

He called on the rebels to open a humanitarian corridor for surrounded Ukrainian soldiers.

Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council said government troops had killed 26 separatist fighters in a battle in eastern Ukraine.

Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko confirmed fresh fighting between Mariupol and Novoazovsk along the Sea of Azov, the Interfax Ukraine news agency reported.

Ukraine says Russian troops entered the country in that region during the last week.

The separatists said their forces had encircled Mariupol, an industrial port city with a peacetime population of 500,000, Russian news agencies reported.

Nearly 2,600 people have died since mid-April in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, according to new UN data released Friday.


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