No automatic renewal of Russia's economic sanctions, says Italy and Hungary
Italy and Hungary, two of the Kremlin's closest allies in Europe, said there could be no automatic extension of the European Union's sanctions against Russia, the most public sign yet of fraying unity on how to deal with Moscow.
Two years after the West imposed economic sanctions over Russia's annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the EU's resolve is at risk of ebbing because of the stalled Minsk peace process, diplomats say.
While EU governments last week extended asset freezes and travel bans on Russians and Russian companies, there is less consensus on whether to prolong more far-reaching sanctions on Russia's banking, defense and energy sectors from July.
"We cannot take for granted any decision at this stage," Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told reporters after a meeting with his EU peers in Brussels, where Russia's EU policy was discussed for the first time in more than a year.
However, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told a news conference such decisions were never taken without political debate, while EU officials said Monday's debate among ministers was measured.
Some EU member states, such as Britain, the Baltic republics and Poland, argue that sanctions remain a necessary response to what they see as an expansionist Russia. Hungary, Italy and Greece stress its importance as a trade partner, a supplier of energy and a major player in attempts to end war in Syria.
"You cannot decide on sanctions by sweeping the issues under the carpet," Hungary's foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, said. "We believe that the question of sanctions should be decided at the highest level. It cannot be automatic," he said.
But Lithuania's foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, whose country was part of the Soviet Union until 1990, told Reuters that, following the debate among ministers on Monday, "there is no revision of policy".
Echoing that, Poland's Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said that "the view is negative as regards the internal situation in Russia and its foreign policy".
Tellingly, after a long discussion, sanctions were not discussed by foreign ministers, partly because the debate was chaired by Mogherini to avoid exacerbating the divisions. Instead, EU officials - who help marshal the bloc's foreign policy - sought to gauge the mood.
One of the biggest points of contention was whether Mogherini, an Italian, should visit Russia at a time when the EU is demanding that Russia release Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, who is on a hunger strike, on humanitarian grounds.
Waszczykowski said he suggested to ministers that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov first come to Brussels.