Brussels - The European Union broadened sanctions on Russia on Tuesday, imposing asset freezes and visa bans on 15 Russian officials or Ukrainian rebel leaders, but many EU states are wary of going further and applying more intense economic pressure on Russia.
The EU targeted a number of high-ranking Russian officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, and Russia's senior general, Valery Gerasimov, and pro-Russian separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine, but steered clear of sanctions on business leaders.
The decision brings to 48 the number of people that the EU has put under sanctions for actions it says have undermined Ukraine's territorial integrity.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said developments in eastern Ukraine ran counter to the agreement reached by Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the EU in Geneva this month aimed at defusing the crisis.
“I call on Russia to take now concrete action in support of the Geneva accord,” she said in a statement.
Russia suggested the European Union should be ashamed of itself for “doing Washington's bidding” by punishing Moscow with sanctions and the self-declared mayor of a separatist-held town in eastern Ukraine said he would discuss the release of detained military observers with the West only if the EU dropped sanctions against rebel leaders.
Russia annexed the Crimea region after Ukraine's pro-Moscow president was ousted in February by protesters demanding closer links with Europe. Kiev and the West accuse Russia of stirring up a separatist campaign in the east, a charge Moscow denies.
The EU's sanctions against Russia so far have been much weaker than those of the United States, which imposed sanctions on Monday on seven Russians, including Igor Sechin, head of oil giant Rosneft, and 17 companies linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Washington will also deny export licences for high-technology items that could help the Russian armed forces.
The EU has threatened to move to hard-hitting sanctions that would target specific sectors of the Russian economy if the Ukraine situation deteriorates, but it has been vague about what would trigger tough sanctions and many EU governments are deeply reluctant about going down that road.
The European Commission is completing work on economic sanctions that the EU could impose, but for now the EU will remain focused on less ambitious, targeted sanctions, EU diplomats said.
EU ambassadors meet again to discuss Ukraine on Wednesday and will consider adding more names to the sanctions list, diplomats said. They will also look at broadening the legal basis of EU sanctions to permit the bloc to target companies, not just individuals.
But EU states are not ready to move to broad, sectoral sanctions, which would require a decision by EU leaders at a summit meeting. “We are not there yet,” one diplomat said.
The EU has more to lose than the United States does if Russia retaliates against sanctions, sparking a possible trade war. Russia provides about one third of the EU's gas imports and is a major trading partner.
Sanctions require delicate burden sharing among EU states. Germany has the most lucrative energy ties. France has a major warship contract at stake while Britain serves as an offshore financial centre to Russia's wealthy.
Diplomats say the EU is split into three camps over moving to economic sanctions. Those pushing towards tougher sanctions include Britain, France, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Those most reluctant are Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Austria, Hungary, Spain, Portugal and Malta.
EU heavyweight Germany is in an undecided middle camp.
One diplomat said the EU must be clear about what the goal of tougher sanctions was and that they would help bring Russia to the negotiating table over Ukraine. “We need to have a clear picture of what the end is,” he said. - Reuters