- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Obama administration condemned new attacks by Russian-backed forces in Ukraine Thursday, and the European Union extended sanctions against Moscow and its allies because of the continued fighting.

“We have shown that the EU is ready to take further measures,” EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said at a meeting in Brussels.

But analysts said the intensifying aggression shows that economic sanctions aren’t deterring Russian President Vladimir Putin or his support for separatist forces battling Kiev in eastern Ukraine.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry tried to reassure allies in other states once part of the Soviet Union, saying the U.S. commitment to protect NATO member countries is “absolutely rock-solid.” But a Russian envoy told European security officials meeting in Vienna that a “big catastrophe” is looming in Ukraine if the West doesn’t back down from its support of Kiev.

“I would like to appeal to the representatives of countries that have influence on Ukraine’s leadership, most of all to Washington: It’s time to stop indulging Ukraine’s ‘party of war,”’ Andrei Kelin told members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “Only a big catastrophe can result from this if developments continue to evolve in [the current] direction.”

Fighting intensified Thursday in eastern Ukraine, where clashes between government and rebel forces have killed five Ukrainian soldiers and three civilians in the last 24 hours, Ukraine’ military reported. Moscow-backed separatists have shelled Ukrainian army positions in more than 100 separate attacks this week.

The renewed fighting, involving Russian weaponry and regular Russian troops, demonstrates that economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European allies are not swaying Mr. Putin in the short term, said Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

“Sanctions are a very proper response to this outrageous land-grab,” Mr. Aron said. “But at the same time no sanctions are going to change Putin’s mind. He has ratcheted up the stakes to such a degree that no [exit] ramp is high enough. I don’t think he can turn away from it now.”

Mr. Aron said the U.S. and its allies must be prepared to confront Moscow’s aggression with even tougher sanctions and increased diplomatic isolation for a period of years.

Putin is there for the long haul,” He said. “This is a long game with very high stakes.”

Russia’s economy is in crisis, with interest rates soaring and the value of the ruble plummeting. Analysts say low oil prices have hurt the Russian economy but sanctions also have had an impact.

All EU foreign ministers at Thursday’s meeting in Brussels, including Greece’s new minister, agreed to extend sanctions against Moscow for six months, Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said, calling it a “strong signal toward Russia.”

Ms. Mogherini said the EU also is preparing a list of new Russian officials to be put on the visa ban and asset freeze program, which could be confirmed as soon as Feb. 9.

“We hope that this can help in putting pressure, in particular on Russia, to make positive steps and prevent the negative steps that we have seen in the recent days,” she said.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. welcomes the EU’s move, but the administration had no new action to announce Thursday. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said Washington is ready to ramp up sanctions on Russia if necessary, and President Obama said more financial support may be necessary to stabilize the Ukrainian economy, in addition to a $2 billion loan guarantee signed for Kiev this week.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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