EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton arrives at an informal meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Ministers.
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MILAN — Several European Union foreign ministers today accused Russia of invading eastern Ukraine and said Moscow should be punished with additional biting economic sanctions.
The meeting of the 28-nation bloc’s top diplomats in Milan came one day after NATO said Moscow slipped at least 1,000 Russian soldiers and much heavy weaponry into Ukraine.
“We have to be aware of what we are facing: We are now in the midst of the second Russian invasion of Ukraine within a year,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, referring to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March.
“We see regular Russian army units operating offensively on the Ukrainian territory against the Ukrainian army,” Bildt said. “We must call a spade a spade.”
Russia has rejected accusations that it invaded Ukraine.
The foreign ministers were set to propose new sanctions against Russia for consideration at a summit of the bloc’s 28 heads of state on Saturday in Brussels.
All options except military action will be considered to punish Russia for pursuing “the wrong path,” said Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn.
“The European Union should be ready to move forward with possible new measures against Russia because the situation is still getting worse,” said Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet.
In an apparent bid for more support and tougher action against Russia, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is set to meet with the head of the EU’s executive Commission, President Jose Manuel Barroso, and summit Chairman Herman Van Rompuy in Brussels on Saturday a few hours before the summit.
Fighting between Ukrainian military forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has already claimed at least 2,200 lives, according to U.N. figures.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Tomasz Sikorski arrives at the meeting holding a basket of apples to protest against Russia's ban on food imports.
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No foreign minister elaborated on what additional sanctions are being considered. The United States and the EU have so far imposed sanctions against dozens of Russian officials, several companies and the country’s financial industry. Moscow has retaliated by banning food imports.
EU food exports to Russia are worth about 10 billion euros ($13 billion) annually. Nations boasting strong agricultural sectors such as Poland, the Netherlands and Germany were hit hardest during the summer harvesting season.
“These are Polish apples; Mr. Putin says they’re poisonous,” said Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski in Milan, handing out juicy surplus apples to journalists at the beginning of the meeting.
The EU’s Barroso called Russian President Vladimir Putin today and firmly condemned the “significant incursions into and operations on Ukrainian soil by Russian military units,” his office said. Barroso warned Putin further destabilization of Ukraine by Russia “will carry high costs.”
New EU sanctions against Russia would have to be agreed unanimously — a requirement that has in the past blocked or softened decisions since some nations fear the economic fallout. Russia is the EU’s third-largest trading partner and one of its biggest oil and gas suppliers.
President Barack Obama said Thursday that Russia’s support for rebel combatants in eastern Ukraine must incur “more costs and consequences.”
In the face of an increasingly assertive Russia, the EU must reconsider its long-term security policies and investments, said Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmerans. “We need to rethink the logic of ever-decreasing defense spending.”
The U.S. has long complained that its European NATO allies have neglected investing in its military capabilities, effectively free-riding on the security provided by America’s much higher defense spending.
In Bucharest today, Romanian President Traian Basescu said that in addition to new sanctions, NATO members should arm Ukraine’s army.
“If NATO members don’t help the army with equipment to face Russia, it is an illusion that Ukraine’s government has any chances,” said Basescu, whose country is a NATO member and a staunch U.S. ally.
Since Russia annexed Crimea, NATO has put AWACS surveillance planes in the skies over Poland and Romania, dispatched warships to the Baltic and Black seas, and sent U.S. Army troops to Poland, Romania and the Baltic states. The U.S. has a base in the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta.
EU leaders at their summit on Saturday will also weigh Ukrainian requests for military assistance.
The two-day foreign ministers’ meeting, which began in Milan today, also planned to discuss the situation in Gaza and the crises engulfing Syria and Iraq.