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EU: Time Not Right to Ease Russia Sanctions

EU Counter-Terrorism chief Gilles de Kerkhove, left, gestures while speaking with European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini during a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, Jan. 19, 2015.

European Union foreign ministers said on Monday there were no grounds to lift economic sanctions against Russia despite conciliatory proposals from the EU's foreign policy chief, as violence intensified in Ukraine.

Federica Mogherini had suggested in a confidential memo seen by Reuters that member states could start talking to Russia again about global diplomacy, trade and other issues if Moscow implemented the Minsk agreements to end the separatist conflict.

"In light of the current events in eastern Ukraine, no one had the idea of loosening the sanctions," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters after the discussions.

One EU official said the ministers had begun a "strategic reflection" on relations with Russia which would continue when EU leaders meet in March.

"We are staying the course and as long as the Minsk protocol is not implemented there is no scope for changing," the official said.

The EU has joined the United States in imposing tough sanctions on Russia over its alleged support for the pro-Moscow rebels in Ukraine but the bloc's 28 member states vary in their enthusiasm for the measures.

Mogherini's proposal went down badly with some more hawkish states, which suggested it could send the wrong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin that EU resolve was cracking.

"I don't think that we now should think how to re-engage. Russia should think how to re-engage," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told reporters.

With attempts to restart peace talks stalled, rebels have stepped up attacks in the past week. Fighting raged around Donetsk airport on Monday.

Danish Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard said the time was not right for the EU to "give up any sanctions or to send any signals that we are willing to do so, but ... we should explore any possibility to find a political solution to this crisis."

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said the EU must maintain sanctions but also needed a long-term perspective on engaging with Moscow.

Mogherini said relaxation of sanctions would only happen if there were improvements on the ground in Ukraine.

Sebastian Kurz, foreign minister of Austria, on the dovish side of the debate, said the EU should draw up a strategy to put relations with Russia back on a firm footing in the long term. "It's not about sharpening or easing sanctions, it's about coming away from pure reaction ... I think it's false only to be reactive," he told reporters.