Putin calls for talks on statehood for eastern Ukraine
The European Union threatened Russia with new trade sanctions if Moscow fails to start reversing its action in Ukraine, but sharp divisions among leaders at a summit in Brussels left the timing of any measure uncertain.
The EU leaders agreed on Sunday to have EU officials draw up within a week a list of new measures that could hit a range of sectors, Reuters reported.
But anxiety about the impact of sanctions on their own sluggish economies - and their access to Russian energy supplies - meant a divided EU could not agree to impose precise deadlines or conditions on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin denies that his forces are involved in Ukraine.
The leaders asked the EU's executive arm, the Commission, to prepare proposals on new sanctions for them to review within a week, including measures that would penalize any person or body which dealt with Ukraine's eastern separatists.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the bloc's most powerful figure, noted measures would be ready within a week and said Putin must act to avoid them: “There will be decisions about new sanctions, if the current situation goes on or deteriorates.”
Merkel said the penalties could be in any of the business sectors the EU has already said could be targeted.
But asked about a deadline for EU action, the summit chairman, EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, said: “It depends, further steps, on development of the situation on the ground. There is no precise criteria, but I can assure you that everybody is assured that we have to move quickly.”
Underlining division among the 28 member states during talks that lasted till after midnight, the Slovak Prime Minister, Robert Fico, called sanctions “meaningless and counter-productive” and threatened to veto any new measures that harmed Slovakia's interests. Those include its need for Russian gas.
Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic are also skeptical.
Moscow, Kiev swap troops
Meanwhile, Ukraine and Russia swapped soldiers who had entered each other's territory near the battlefield in eastern Ukraine, where Kiev says Moscow's forces have come to the aid of pro-Russian insurgents advancing for an assault on a major port, AP reported.
Ukrainian troops and local residents were reinforcing the port of Mariupol on Sunday; the next big city in the path of rebels who pushed back government forces along the Azov Sea this past week in an offensive on a new front.
The new rebel advance has drawn increasing concern from Ukraine's Western allies, who say its success is a result of reinforcement by armored columns of Russian troops.
Statehood for eastern Ukraine
In another event, Putin on Sunday dramatically raised the stakes in the Ukraine conflict by calling for the first time for statehood to be considered for the restive east of the former Soviet state.
“We need to immediately begin substantive talks ... on questions of the political organization of society and statehood for southeastern Ukraine with the goal of protecting the lawful interests of the people who live there,” Putin was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies on a TV show broadcast in the far east of the country.
In the program, taped on Friday, Putin did not directly address additional Western sanctions on Russia.
Putin however blamed the crisis in Ukraine on the West, accusing it of supporting a “coup” against President Viktor Yanukovych in February.
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