Western powers warned Russia on Wednesday that they could impose new sanctions if Moscow did not do more to defuse the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where a ceasefire between Russian-speaking rebels and government forces appeared to be crumbling.
The upper house of Russia’s parliament fulfilled a request by President Vladimir Putin to rescind the right to invade Ukraine in defense of its Russian speakers that it had granted him in March.
However, a leading lawmaker said the power could be quickly restored if required, and Western governments indicated they would judge Russia by the progress that was made to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
On Tuesday, less than 24 hours after a bilateral ceasefire was agreed, rebels shot down a Ukrainian military helicopter, killing all nine on board. This prompted Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to tell his troops to return fire if attacked, declaring that he might call off the ceasefire altogether.
A Ukrainian government spokesman said the rebels had violated the ceasefire 44 times since Monday.
Moscow denies Western accusations that it has allowed fighters to cross into Ukraine along with heavy weapons to confront Ukrainian government forces, and that it is keeping its own troops close to the border to put pressure on Kiev.
But during a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters: “I regret to say that we see no signs that Russia is respecting its international commitments.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was working with its European Union partners, who hold a summit in Brussels at the end of this week, to prepare a new round of sanctions against Russia in case they are necessary.
Not all EU leaders back the idea, but British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that if Russia did not “stop the flow of arms across the border (and) stop supporting illegally armed separatist groups,” the case for tougher sanctions “will of course become stronger.”
On Wednesday, Ukraine asked the International Monetary Fund to acknowledge the effect of the fighting as it decides on further disbursement of aid under a $17billion bailout program.
Just as the ceasefire expires on Friday, Poroshenko is set to sign a free trade agreement with the EU. Russia has already said it will respond by applying import duties to Ukrainian goods.