European Union leaders will meet today under pressure to impose punishing sanctions on Moscow for an alleged military incursion into Ukraine, despite a warning to other states from Russian president Vladimir Putin "not to mess with us" .
As Ukraine's forces battled pro-Russian rebels in eastern regions yesterday, Kiev, the United States, Nato and several EU foreign ministers again accused the Kremlin of sending troops and heavy weapons to assist the insurgents.
‘Frank exchange ‘
The European Commission said its president, José Manuel Barroso, had a “very frank exchange of views” with Mr Putin by telephone, and warned him that “further destabilisation of Ukraine and the region will carry high costs”.
At a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Milan, Germany’s top diplomat Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: “The situation in Ukraine is entering a new dimension . . . All our hopes of de-escalation have been disappointed and the situation is showing signs that it is now out of control.”
Berlin has sought to maintain cordial relations between the EU and Russia during a deepening crisis over Ukraine, and has encouraged Kiev to compromise with Moscow to end fighting that has killed more than 2,500 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.
Even EU states that fear a damaging trade and energy dispute with Moscow now appear more inclined to take tougher action against it, however, following an alleged push into Donetsk region by what Nato claims are more than 1,000 Russian soldiers with armoured vehicles and rocket systems.
Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski said EU states that had advocated a softer line with Russia now had to explain "what their ideas [are] to stop president Putin and save Ukraine as she is".
“If it looks like a war, sounds like a war and kills like a war, it is a war,” he wrote on Twitter. “We must call a spade a spade: this is the second Russian invasion of Ukraine within a year.”
Moscow’s troops seized Crimea before the Kremlin annexed it in March, and Kiev’s forces are now fighting rebels on the coast of the Azov Sea to halt what they fear could be a push to seize land that would link Russia’s border with the peninsula. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Russia’s alleged military involvement in Ukraine put it “at risk of . . . additional economic costs that can be imposed by the United States in concert with our allies.”
Russia denies interfering in Ukraine and claims the crisis is part of a drive by the West to weaken Kremlin influence in former Soviet territory.
That feeling will only have been heightened by a request from Ukrainian premier Arseniy Yatsenyuk yesterday for parliament to allow it to pursue Nato membership.