BRUSSELS — Despite tough rhetoric decrying Russia's increasing military involvement in Ukraine, European Union leaders today stopped short of imposing new sanctions against Moscow right away.
Instead, the 28-nation bloc's heads of state and government tasked their executive body to "urgently" prepare tougher economic sanctions that could be adopted within a week, according to EU summit chairman Herman Van Rompuy.
The decision on new sanctions will depend on the evolution of the situation on the ground but "everybody is fully aware that we have to act quickly," he added. The EU leaders call on Russia to "immediately withdraw all its military assets and forces from Ukraine," they said in a joint statement.
NATO said last week that at least 1,000 Russian soldiers are in Ukraine. Russia denies that. NATO also says Russia has amassed some 20,000 troops just across Ukraine's eastern border, which could rapidly carry out a full-scale invasion.
The fighting between the military and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has so far claimed 2,600 lives, according to U.N. figures.
The United States and the EU have so far imposed sanctions against dozens of Russian officials, several companies as well as the country's financial and arms industry. Moscow has retaliated by banning food imports.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the new sanctions would target the same sectors as previous punitive measures, which also included an export ban for some high technology and oil exploration equipment.
"If Russia continues to escalate the crisis it will come with a high cost," said EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. "It's time for everyone to get down to the business of peace-making. It is not too late, but time is quickly running out," he said.
Several European leaders had called for additional sanctions at the outset of the meeting in Brussels, but the fear of an economic backlash apparently prevailed and led the bloc to grant Russia another chance at avoiding tougher action. New sanctions would have required unanimity among the leaders.
Russia is the EU's No. 3 trading partner and one of its biggest oil and gas suppliers. The EU is Russia's biggest commercial partner, making any sanctions more biting than similar measures adopted by the United States.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who briefed the leaders at the beginning of their talks, said a strong response was needed to the "military aggression and terror" facing his country. Efforts to halt the violence in eastern Ukraine were "very close to a point of no return" and failing to de-escalate the situation could lead to a "full-scale war," he warned.