MINSK: Negotiators from Ukraine, Russia and Europe are set to hold fresh peace talks Friday in a bid to end a surge in fighting between Kiev and Kremlin-backed rebels, with tensions running high after the European Union hit Moscow with more sanctions.
The talks in Belarus capital Minsk will bring together the contact group of representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Belarus foreign ministry said.
But the meeting is set to be overshadowed by a deal reached by European Union (EU) foreign ministers Thursday to tighten sanctions against Russia over the conflict, which the United Nations says has left at least 5,100 people dead.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev warned on Thursday that the sanctions risk turning the new Cold War atmosphere into a globally destabilizing “hot” armed conflict between Moscow and the West.
EU foreign ministers agreed the new measures against Russia during emergency talks called after dozens died in fighting in the east Ukrainian port of Mariupol, overcoming reluctance from Greece’s radical new government.
“I cannot say I am happy that we have taken this decision because the situation on the ground is nothing to be happy about,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told a press conference in Brussels.
“But the one thing I can be happy about is that we have kept our unity,” she added.
The United States welcomed the EU move, and warned Russia that it was mulling fresh sanctions of its own.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the EU agreement was “a further sign that the actions of the last several days and weeks are absolutely unacceptable and that there will be new consequences put in place.”
The EU deal extends a series of targeted sanctions — hitting more than 100 Russian and Ukrainian figures — by six months until September. The sanctions were introduced after Russia annexed the peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine last March.
Foreign ministers also agreed to come up with more names to be hit with the travel bans and asset freezes within a week, and to start work on further “appropriate action” if Moscow and the rebels keep breaching a largely disregarded peace deal signed in Minsk in September.
That could open the door for the widening of much tougher sectoral sanctions hurting the Russian economy which were introduced after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July.
Greece’s new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who is close to Russia, had raised doubts about the need for more sanctions earlier in the week, but fears that Athens could veto new measures failed to materialize.