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EU Seeks Dialogue Before Sanctions to Ease Russia-Ukraine

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's foreign minister, meets the press after a special session of the EU Council for Foreign Relations in Brussels on March 03, 2014. Photographer: Michael Gottschalk/Photothek via Getty Images
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's foreign minister, meets the press after a special session of the EU Council for Foreign Relations in Brussels on March 03, 2014. Photographer: Michael Gottschalk/Photothek via Getty Images

March 3 (Bloomberg) -- European Union foreign ministers brandished the threat of sanctions on Russia for seizing swathes of Ukraine’s territory, while giving the Kremlin a chance to pull back its troops and seek a negotiated settlement.

The 28-nation EU called on President Vladimir Putin to take immediate “de-escalating steps” by ordering his Russian forces to return to permanent bases in the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea. A Russian refusal would prompt the suspension of talks to deepen trade ties and ease European travel for Russian citizens, the EU said.

European governments were in less of a hurry to penalize Russia than U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who yesterday weighed kicking Russia out of the Group of Eight forum of advanced economies and floated the prospect of asset freezes and travel bans on Kremlin officials. EU President Herman Van Rompuy called a leaders’ summit for March 6 to consider the next steps.

“Diplomacy is not a sign of weakness, but rather more necessary than ever,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters after an emergency EU meeting in Brussels today.

Suspending the talks on a trade and partnership pact was the EU’s response the last time Russia invaded a neighbor, by attacking Georgia in 2008. In September of that year, EU governments halted the process, resuming it two months later. The negotiations have made little headway since then.

NATO Reaction

NATO reacted to the Georgia incursion with an eight-month freeze on “business as usual” with Russia. The U.S.-led military alliance hasn’t gone that far in the Ukraine crisis, pairing its denunciation yesterday of the Russian military moves with a pledge to “engage” with the Kremlin.

Germany, divided during the Cold War with West Germany part of the trans-Atlantic alliance and East Germany under Soviet domination, combined a plea for a firm European response with a determination to keep the phone lines open to Putin.

The threat of an embargo on European arms sales to Russia, an option included in an early draft of today’s EU statement, was dropped from the final version. Nor did the bloc set a precise deadline for Russia to pull its troops back to bases it leases from Ukraine’s government in Crimea, a region with a majority ethnic Russian population and historic ties to Moscow.

The timeframe for Russia to pull back is “the coming days,” Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said.

The gradual ratcheting-up of pressure on Russia will bear fruit, according to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.

“Things add up,” Bildt said. “Every single measure in itself might look weak. But add things up and it changes things rather fundamentally.”

The EU pushed Putin “without delay” to take up direct peace talks with Ukraine’s new government. A possible mediator would be the United Nations or Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 57-nation forum that includes Russia and the U.S.

To contact the reporters on this story: James G. Neuger in Brussels at jneuger@bloomberg.net; Jonathan Stearns in Brussels at jstearns2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Alan Crawford at acrawford6@bloomberg.net

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