BRUSSELS — The European Union's foreign ministers on Monday ruled out any easing of sanctions against Russia as long as fighting rages in eastern Ukraine, despite concerns about the economic consequences.
EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said the 28 ministers decided that the EU "will stay the course." Denying any fraying of a common stand in the face of Moscow, she said: "We are united on this."
The ministers stressed that the flare-up in fighting in and around Donetsk had further dampened any hope for a breakthrough in the diplomatic standoff in which both the West and Russia have slapped sanctions on each other.
Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine claimed on Monday they had seized control of Donetsk airport once again and the Ukrainian military had to acknowledge that the fighting for the rubble-strewn trophy had been fierce.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius went as far as saying that Moscow had used the recent lull in fighting to prepare for more chaos. "Even the ceasefire was used to better supply separatists and terrorist groups and that is the reason why battles were again waged by the airport," he told reporters.
"The latest developments on the ground are definitely not encouraging — rather the contrary," Mogherini said. On top of the clashes in eastern Ukraine, she said any major decision also hinged on turning back last year's annexation of Ukraine's southern region of Crimea.
While Mogherini said she wanted to keep open diplomatic channels with Moscow to deal with global issues including the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programs, she said there was no way the EU would cave in to Russia.
"There is no going back to business as usual in any way," she said.
In Paris, French President Francois Hollande expressed concerns about the economic consequences of the sanctions for the European economy.
He stressed that French food producers have been especially affected by the sanctions, and said European officials must address these issues.
EU sanctions against Russia over the crisis in Ukraine are hurting Russia as well as pinching some big European companies.
Raf Casert can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rcasert