BRUSSELS – Despite tough rhetoric decrying Russia’s increasing military involvement in Ukraine, European Union leaders today stopped short of imposing new sanctions against Moscow right away.
Instead, the 28-nation bloc’s heads of state and government tasked their executive body to “urgently undertake preparatory work” for tougher economic sanctions, according to summit chairman Herman Van Rompuy.
The sanctions will depend on the evolution of the situation on the ground but “everybody is fully aware that we have to act quickly,” he added. The preparatory work will start Monday, he added.
The fighting between the military and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has so far claimed 2,600 lives, according to U.N. figures. NATO said this week at least 1,000 Russian soldiers are in Ukraine, which Russia denies. Another 20,000 Russian troops are amassed just across Ukraine’s eastern border, NATO said.
The United States and the European Union have so far imposed sanctions against dozens of Russian officials and several companies, as well as the country’s financial and arms industry. Moscow retaliated by banning food imports.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the new sanctions would target the same sectors as previous punitive measures, which also included an export ban for some high technology and oil exploration equipment.
Several European leaders had called for additional sanctions at the outset of the meeting in Brussels, but the fear of an economic backlash apparently prevailed and led the bloc to grant Russia another chance at avoiding tougher action. New sanctions would have required unanimity among the leaders.
Russia is the European Union’s No. 3 trading partner and one of its biggest oil and gas suppliers. The European Union, in turn, is Russia’s biggest commercial partner, making any sanctions more biting than similar measures adopted by the United States.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who briefed the leaders at the beginning of their talks, said a strong response was needed to the “military aggression and terror” facing his country.
“Thousands of the foreign troops and hundreds of the foreign tanks are now on the territory of Ukraine,” Poroshenko told reporters in English. “There is a very high risk not only for peace and stability for Ukraine, but for the whole … of Europe.”
Conceding ground in the face of a reinvigorated rebel offensive, Ukraine said Saturday that it was abandoning a city where its forces have been surrounded by rebels for days. Government forces were also pulling back from another it had claimed to have taken control of two weeks earlier.
The statements by Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the national security council, indicate that Ukrainian forces face increasingly strong resistance from Russian-backed separatist rebels just weeks after racking up significant gains and forcing rebels out of much of the territory they had held.
The office of the Donetsk mayor reported in a statement that at least two people died in an artillery attack on one of Donetsk’s neighborhoods. Shelling was reported elsewhere in the city, but there was no immediate word on casualties.
Poroshenko told reporters he believed efforts to halt the violence in eastern Ukraine were “very close to a point of no return,” warning that failure could lead to a “full-scale war.”
European leaders also issued dire warnings, reflecting their concern over the most recent military escalation with the opening of a new front by the Russian-backed rebels in southeastern Ukraine.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said Russia’s meddling in Ukraine, which seeks closer ties with the European Union, amounts to a direct confrontation that requires stronger sanctions.
“Russia is practically in the war against Europe,” she said in English.
Grybauskaite said the European Union should impose a full arms embargo, including the canceling of already agreed contracts, but France has so far staunchly opposed that proposal because it has a $1.6 billion contract to build Mistral helicopter carriers for Russia.
British Prime Minister David Cameron also warned that Europe shouldn’t be complacent about Russian troops on Ukrainian soil.
“Countries in Europe shouldn’t have to think long before realizing just how unacceptable that is,” he said. “We know that from our history. So consequences must follow.”
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said “sanctions are not an end in themselves,” but a means to dissuade Russia from further destabilizing Ukraine.
Moscow, meanwhile, is preparing to send a second convoy of humanitarian aid to eastern Ukraine.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that Moscow has already received Kiev’s preliminary approval and insisted that it would send aid in coordination with the Red Cross. Lavrov wouldn’t say when the aid is likely to be sent, but said it could happen next week.
Russian state Rossiya 24 Saturday showed trucks from the previous convoy at the border being loaded with humanitarian aid that was brought to the area by train. It was unclear when the new convoy could start moving.
Barroso said that the European Union – a bloc encompassing 500 million people and stretching from Lisbon to the border with Ukraine – stands ready to grant Kiev further humanitarian aid and financial assistance if needed. The bloc will also organize a donors’ conference to help rebuild the country’s east at the end of the year, he added.
Ukrainian forces had been surrounded by rebels in the town of Ilovaysk, about 15 miles east of the largest rebel-held city of Donetsk for days.
“We are surrendering this city,” Ukraine’s Lysenko told reporters. “Our task now is to evacuate our military with the least possible losses in order to regroup.”
Lysenko said that regular units of the military had been ordered to retreat from Novosvitlivka and Khryashchuvate, two towns on the main road between the Russian border and Luhansk, the second-largest rebel-held city. Ukraine had claimed control of Novosvitlivka earlier in August.
Separately, Ukrainian forces said one of their Su-25 fighter jets was shot down Friday over eastern Ukraine by a missile from a Russian missile launcher. The pilot ejected and was uninjured, the military said in a brief statement.