European Union governments warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that they’re ready to expand sanctions if the conflict in Ukraine intensifies.
Citing a “worsening crisis in eastern Ukraine and its humanitarian impact on the civilian population,” EU foreign ministers urged Russia in a joint statement to stop “any form of border hostilities,” including arming pro-Russian separatists, and to pull back its forces from the border.
Illustrating the stakes, Ukraine said its troops attacked an armed convoy that had crossed the border from Russia just as the 28 ministers wound up emergency talks in Brussels yesterday. While Russian officials denied that the incident occurred, U.S. and European stocks tumbled on the news.
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office issued a statement saying he expressed “grave concern” at the reports during a call with Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko. The U.K. called in the Russian ambassador to explain the reports.
“Russia doesn’t seem to have changed its strategy and is continuing creating instability in eastern Ukraine,” Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans told reporters in Brussels. If Russia sent vehicles into Ukraine and they were attacked, it’s “further proof that Russia continues destabilizing the situation and that is not helpful, to say the least,” he said.
Earlier, the ministers warned Russia against using humanitarian missions as cover to bring troops into Ukraine, expressing frustration at the Kremlin’s refusal to heed calls to de-escalate the conflict.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for U.S. President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, said in a statement yesterday: “Russia has no right to send vehicles, persons, or cargo of any kind into Ukraine, under any pretext, without the Government of Ukraine’s permission.” The statement also called on Russia to stop firing into Ukraine and end the supply of weapons and cash to separatists.
While EU governments widened sanctions on Russia to banks financing and advanced technology in July, calls by Hungary and Slovakia this week for a reversal of sanctions hint at divisions that may make it difficult to squeeze Putin further.
In their statement, EU governments said the reasons for sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea and destabilizing Ukraine “remain valid” and the bloc “remains ready to consider further steps, in light of the evolution of the situation on the ground.”
“Should reports coming through right now be confirmed there would be a clear and grave violation of international law” on the part of Russia, Italian Foreign Minister Mogherini said after the meeting.
Ukraine said Russia continues to supply rebels in the east of the country with equipment and that military vehicles had crossed over the border under cover of darkness. Russia denied its troops entered Ukraine and said they’re only deployed to patrol its side of the frontier.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking to reporters in Copenhagen, said that Russia had made an illegal incursion into Ukraine.
“As the NATO secretary general said, to see a sort of territorial invasion is an aggression,” said Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders. “If troops entered on the Ukrainian territory, it can’t be a surprise that the Ukrainian army reacts.”