EU heads of state arrive today in Brussels for the start of a two-day summit which will be dominated by the Ukrainian crisis, as the European Union considers imposing tougher sanctions on Russia in response to its incursion into Crimea.
But as EU ambassadors met last night in Brussels ahead of the summit, significant differences still remained between member states on the scale and scope of the sanctions that should be deployed.
A number of countries, led by Sweden, Poland, Hungary and the Baltic States, have been pushing for tougher action against the Putin regime, but states including Germany, the Netherlands and Italy have urged more caution. Russia is the European Union's third-largest trading partner and supplies about 30 per cent of the EU's gas.
Minister of State for European Affairs Paschal Donohoe, who will attend today's summit with Taoiseach Enda Kenny, said it was in Ireland's interest to back sanctions against Russia.
He was responding to comments from the Russian ambassador to Ireland, Maxim Peshkov, who warned that Ireland will suffer serious economic consequences if it supports further EU sanctions.
"It is our duty, as well as being in our national interest, to uphold international law and support the measures being proposed at EU level to deal with the Russian intervention in the Crimea," said Mr Donohoe. He said it was quite clear international law had been broken and an appropriate response was essential.
The EU is scheduled to sign the political part of the agreement with Ukraine that was rejected by the former Ukrainian government in November, a move that prompted the subsequent crisis. The EU has so far taken an incremental approach to sanctions against Russia, implementing visa restrictions two weeks ago, and sanctions on 21 individuals at a foreign affairs ministers meeting on Monday.
Today will be the first meeting of leaders since Russia's effective annexation of Crimea earlier this week.
Though the move was widely condemned by EU leaders and heads of state, EU officials said yesterday there was still no consensus among member states over whether Russia’s actions required a more robust response.
However, the EU will also explore ways of reducing dependence on Russian gas at the summit.
Yesterday masked pro-Russian forces seized Ukraine’s naval headquarters in Sevastopol, Crimea, a day after a Ukrainian soldier was shot dead.
Acting Ukrainian president Oleksander Turchinov warned Russia it would take action if pressure on its forces in Crimea continued.
Meanwhile, Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking in Washington, accused Russia of attempting to "redraw the map of Europe", and creating "the most serious security crisis since the end of the cold war".
Also yesterday, speaking in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius on the second day of a two-day tour of eastern Europe, American vice-president Joe Biden warned Russia that it faces "increasing political and economic isolation".