[BRUSSELS] European Union leaders agreed on Thursday that economic sanctions imposed on Russia will stay in place until a Ukraine peace deal is fully implemented, effectively extending them to the end of the year if need be.
The compromise reached at an EU summit in Brussels maintains EU unity on sanctions against Moscow over its role in the Ukraine conflict.
Strains have been growing within the 28-country bloc over sanctions which some member governments have only supported reluctantly.
EU governments were divided on whether to act now to renew economic sanctions on Russia which expire in July or to wait several months before taking a decision to see if the Ukraine ceasefire holds.
EU leaders backed a compromise hammered out by European Council President Donald Tusk together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, two of the architects of the Ukraine peace plan reached in Minsk last month.
Leaders "agreed that the duration of economic sanctions will be clearly linked to the complete implementation of the Minsk agreements, bearing in mind that this is only foreseen by the end of 2015", Tusk told a news conference.
EU leaders were also "ready to take further decisions if necessary", he said, in a clear threat of additional sanctions.
A formal, legal decision on whether to extend sanctions on Russia's financial, defence and energy sectors that expire in July will only be taken at the next EU summit in June.
But the link to the Ukraine peace agreement effectively extends economic sanctions until the end of the year because the Minsk accord sets a year-end deadline for Kiev to recover full control over its border.