European politicians call for new sanctions on Russia over clash with Ukraine

Several senior European politicians have raised the possibility of new sanctions against Russia to punish it for capturing three Ukrainian vessels at sea, an incident the West fears could ignite a wider conflict.

Russian forces, claiming they were provoked, seized 3 Ukrainian ships on Sunday

A bridge connects the Russian mainland with the Crimean Peninsula in the Kerch Strait, Crimea, where Russian forces seized 3 Ukrainian ships Sunday. (Pavel Rebrov/Reuters)

Several senior European politicians on Tuesday raised the possibility of new sanctions against Russia to punish it for capturing three Ukrainian vessels at sea, an incident the West fears could ignite a wider conflict.

Meanwhile, a Russian minister said further sanctions would solve nothing and that the incident should not be used to derail the Minsk accord, which aims to end fighting in eastern Ukraine between Kiev's forces and pro-Russian separatist rebels.

After Russia opened fire on and seized the Ukrainian boats and crews on Sunday near Crimea — which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014 — Moscow and Kyiv have tried to pin the blame on each other.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel by phone on Monday that Moscow was ready to provide more details to bolster its version of events. Moscow says Kyiv deliberately provoked it in order to trigger a crisis.

Merkel, who also spoke on Monday with Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko, called for de-escalation and dialogue.

Ukraine has introduced martial law for 30 days in parts of the country it deems most vulnerable to an attack from Russia. It has said its ships did nothing wrong and that it wants the West to impose new sanctions on Moscow.

The seized Ukrainian ships anchored in a port of Kerch. (Pavel Rebrov/Reuters)

Some of the 24 Ukrainian sailors held by Russia for straying into Russian waters appeared on Russian state TV on Tuesday admitting to being part of a pre-planned provocation. Kyiv considers the sailors prisoners of war and denounced what it described as forced confessions.

A court in Crimea ordered seven of the Ukrainian sailors to be detained for two months pending a possible trial. It was expected to order the other sailors to be detained for the same period in separate hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Strategic strait

Their vessels were captured by Russian forces at sea near the Kerch Strait, which is the only outlet to the Sea of Azov and controls access to two major Ukrainian ports.

A Reuters reporter at the Crimean port of Kerch, where the vessels are being held, saw masked armed men on board one of the ships removing boxes of ammunition.

Two Russian police officers with automatic rifles stood on the pier where the Ukrainian vessels were moored. The vessels bore traces of collisions and big holes in places.

New sanctions?

Senior German parliamentarian Norbert Roettgen, a close Merkel ally, said the European Union may need to toughen its sanctions against Russia, imposed partly over Moscow's annexation of Crimea.

Karin Kneissl, foreign minister of Austria, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, said the EU would consider sanctions depending "on the exposition of facts and the further conduct of both parties."

Poland and Estonia, both hawkish on Russia, expressed support for more sanctions.

"Sanctions are leading nowhere. It will not help to solve any problem at all," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said on the sidelines of a security conference in Berlin.

He suggested Kyiv provoked the incident to derail the already slow implementation of the Minsk accord, meant to put an end to hostilities in eastern Ukraine, and said Moscow had a keen interest in ending that conflict after absorbing more than a million refugees from the region.

Energy vs. defence

Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Bartosz Cichocki told Reuters the incident in the Kerch Strait vindicated Warsaw's call for a more unified Western stance toward Russia.

"Russia remains wrongly convinced that the reaction of the West isn't unified ... because in energy matters there is one stance and in defence matters there is another," he said, noting that some EU states such as Germany backed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that increases Europe's reliance on Russian gas.

Highlighting that lack of unity, it was unclear on Tuesday whether all 28 EU member states would be able to agree on joint text calling on Russia to free the Ukrainian ships and sailors.

Asked about possible new sanctions, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris Tuesday, declined to answer and blamed the ship standoff on the "high level of militarization" in the region.

EU foreign affairs ministers are due to discuss the matter on December 10, and EU leaders are expected to agree to extend the bloc's existing sanctions on Russia, including the economic ones, later next month, diplomatic sources said.

They said the latest escalation weakened the hand of Italy and other doves keen to dilute the bloc's sanctions regime against Moscow for its past actions in Ukraine.

Russia's FSB security service released video footage on Tuesday of the captured sailors saying they had ignored Russian orders to stop. At least one appeared to be reading from a script. Ukrainian politicians said the sailors were coerced, rendering their confessions meaningless.

With files from The Associated Press