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EU foreign ministers reluctant to impose new Russia sanctions

Following talks in the Latvian capital, EU foreign ministers have shown little sign of stepping up pressure on Russia over the Ukraine crisis. Hopes remain that a successful ceasefire will prevent further sanctions.

European Union

foreign ministers

have continued to pin their hopes on the Ukraine ceasefire succeeding and said on Saturday that the EU should only consider more sanctions, or even extending existing ones, if the deal was seriously violated - by a separatist offensive on the Ukrainian port of Mariupol, for instance.

Since the Ukraine ceasefire was agreed to by Kyiv and pro-Russian separatists in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, last month, both sides have accused each other of violence in eastern Ukraine. Serious fighting occurred during the first week the deal was officially in place, but has lessened considerably in recent weeks.

The EU currently has visa bans and asset freezes in place that target 151 individuals, including several high-ranking Russian officials.

'Glimpse of hope'

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said on Saturday that he saw "encouraging signals" on the ground in eastern Ukraine.

"At the moment we don't need either new sanctions or automatic renewals [of sanctions]" Gentiloni told reporters.

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz agreed, adding that "there is a glimpse of hope since Minsk."

"We should do everything now to improve the situation and decide later whether that improvement really happened and we can reduce the sanctions, or if we have to extend them," Kurz said.

Divided camps

But divisions over the sanctions against Russia remain. The UK, Poland and the Baltic states have consistently taken a tough stance against Russia.

Speaking in Brussels on Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel

warned Russia to live up to the Ukraine peace agreement

or face tougher sanctions.

Several of the EU's other 28 member states, including Italy, Austria and Cyprus, are skeptical about sanctions.

The deadline is now approaching for the EU to decide whether to extend sanctions against Russia, which were imposed for one year last July. Unanimity is required to extend them.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Friday that some EU countries were saying the bloc should announce now that it would extend the economic sanctions until the end of the year.

"What matters is that ... we maintain unity within the EU, and above all that we continue to put on pressure so that things change on the ground," Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said on Saturday.

Warming to Belarus

Following Belarus' efforts in helping to secure the Ukraine-Russia peace accord last month, EU foreign ministers also said on Saturday that, after years of bitter divisions, the EU is contemplating closer ties to the eastern European country, which is often referred to as "Europe's last dictatorship."

Despite Minsk's continued crackdown on dissent on independent media, Latvia's Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said on Saturday that the EU sees "the opportunity to broaden and deepen relations with Belarus."

ksb/sms (Reuters, AP)

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