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EU agrees to stick to Russia sanctions policy
[BRUSSELS] EU foreign ministers agreed on Monday there would be no change in the bloc's Russia policy, including sanctions, as the union's diplomatic chief warned the Ukraine situation had got "much worse" in recent weeks.
They said they would stick to their course until Russia fully implemented the Ukraine peace accords it had backed in September, despite EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini's suggestion of a review in the way the European Union deals with Russia.
"EU foreign ministers agree we must keep sanctions pressure on Russia until it helps deliver peace in Ukraine," Britain's Philip Hammond said on Twitter said after talks in Brussels.
"EU must stay the course," Hammond added.
The 28-nation EU imposed limited economic sanctions after the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, with more stringent measures following the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July.
With a fresh round of fighting erupting in eastern Ukraine, Mogherini said the "latest developments on the ground are not encouraging, rather the contrary." "The situation on the ground today is much worse than in last weeks," Mogherini told a press conference after the talks.
In a briefing paper before the meeting, Mogherini had asked ministers to look beyond the immediate Ukraine crisis to consider if both sides could make progress on shared concerns such as Syria, Iraq and terrorism.
She also suggested controversially that a distinction might be made between sanctions imposed for Russia's annexation of Crimea in March and those for backing pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Critics said that came dangerously close to tacit acceptance that nothing could be done over Crimea, which President Vladimir Putin insists is sacred Russian territory, while holding out the prospect of some progress on eastern Ukraine.
Mogherini insisted the EU remained united.
"Those who expected divisions today will be slightly disappointed," she added.
The EU has long been split over sanctions, with several member states with important trade and political ties with Russia, such as Germany and Italy, having been reluctant to step up sanctions after the downing of flight MH17.
The measures were all introduced for a year starting from March, meaning that the first of them will shortly come up for review, putting the EU on the spot to decide what comes next.
The September Minsk accords provided for a ceasefire and military pullback but they have failed to halt the fighting which has claimed some 4,800 lives since April.
Both sides claim the other refuses to implement the accords and on Monday, fresh fighting broke out for control of Donetsk airport.
The EU's discussion paper was widely leaked to the press before Monday's meeting and drew some barbs from those wary of Mogherini who faced charges of being soft on Moscow as Italian foreign minister before she took the EU post.
"We are not in the mood to be shifting stance at this stage," one EU diplomatic source said before Monday's meeting, saying of the paper that "it was not terribly helpful that it was leaked."