WASHINGTON – The European Union is preparing to impose sanctions against an additional 15 Russians in positions of power after the weekend, according to a European diplomat, as Ukraine’s government said separatists had seized international monitors as hostages in eastern Ukraine.
The list of sanction targets may be expanded after an emergency meeting of the EU’s foreign affairs council Monday, said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
President Obama discussed deepening sanctions against Russia with the leaders of Germany, France, the U.K. and Italy on a conference call Friday. Discussions on sanctions by the Group of Seven nations accelerated after Russia renewed military exercises on its neighbor’s border, and explosions in two Ukrainian cities wounded eight.
“The five leaders agreed that in the light of Russia’s refusal to support the process, an extension of the current targeted sanctions would need to be implemented, in conjunction with other G-7 leaders and with European partners,” U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said.
In Ukraine, pro-Russian militants captured a bus carrying observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 57-nation group that includes Russia and the U.S. focusing on conflict prevention and preserving human rights, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said in a statement on its website. They were holding 13 people hostage in the separatist-held eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk, it said.
Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-proclaimed pro-Russian “people’s mayor” of Slovyansk, said rebels had stopped the bus because the OSCE mission was accompanied by Ukrainian officers, and activists had found weapons and ammunition, the news service Interfax cited him as saying.
U.S. defense officials said Friday that Russian fighter jets flew into Ukrainian airspace a handful of times over the last 24 hours, in what one called a continued provocation of the heightened tensions in the region.
The officials said it’s not clear what the intent was, but the aircraft could have been testing Ukrainian radar or making a show of force.
Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, confirmed the flights, adding that the U.S. is calling on the Russians “to take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation.”
In the wake of capital flight and a Russian credit-rating downgrade Friday by Standard & Poor’s, the country’s central bank unexpectedly raised its key interest rate to 7.5 percent, from 7 percent. All but one of 23 economists in a Bloomberg survey had forecast no change.
The ruble has lost almost 9 percent this year against the dollar, the second-worst performance among 24 emerging currencies tracked by Bloomberg after Argentina’s peso.
A meeting of the Eastern Partnership initiative attended by ex-Soviet republics Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in Prague “recommended” that Russia withdraw what North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials estimate are as many as 40,000 troops from Ukraine’s border.
“We are facing the most serious crisis since 1945,” Stefan Fule, EU enlargement commissioner, said at the meeting. “Ukraine, its citizens and their freedoms cannot become victims of political games.”
Russia has more than tripled the number of helicopters at a base close to the Latvian border to about 100, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said. NATO has responded by providing a reassurance package for region, signaling the Baltic states are part of the military alliance.
Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov’s chief of staff, Serhiy Pashynsky, said troops had blockaded Slovyansk to prevent the arrival of rebel reinforcements, according to a statement on the presidential website.
One member of the government forces has died and nine have been wounded since the operation started last week, according to the official in charge of Ukraine’s anti-terrorist center, Vasyl Krutov. A helicopter pilot was injured when his aircraft came under fire Friday, setting the fuel tank on fire, he said.
Police in the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa are also investigating an explosion that injured seven people Friday morning as a terrorist attack, Interfax reported, citing police chief Petro Lutsyk.