The president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, has convened an emergency meeting of EU leaders on Thursday (6 March) to discuss the situation in Ukraine amid growing calls for the European Union to impose sanctions on Russia following its seizure of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine.
France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned Russia on Monday that if tensions did not ease in Ukraine's Crimea region, the European Union would consider "targeted measures" in response.
"If there is not in the coming hours a very quick de-escalation, then we will decide concrete measures such as the suspension of all talks on visas, suspension of economic agreements and concretely that means that ties will be cut on lot of subjects," Laurent Fabius told BFM TV.
"There could be targeted measures and that can also affect people, officials and their assets," he said, adding that EU leaders could hold a crisis meeting on the stand-off on Thursday.
"The general tone is that the Russians appear to have decided to go even further. Europe must be firm."
Fabius was speaking on the sidelines of an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers convened in Brussels after Russian President Vladimir Putin seized the Crimean peninsula and said he had the right to invade Ukraine.
'Act of aggression'
The meeting, which concluded late on Monday, used strong language to condemn Russia's military incursion in Ukraine, describing it as "an act of aggression by the Russian armed forces" that was in "clear violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
"Without question this is in breach of Russia's international obligations and its commitments", said Catherine Ashton, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
Moscow has said it is protecting the lives of Russian citizens and speakers in Ukraine, and appears to be calculating that the West cannot afford to risk a wider conflagration by taking anything approaching military action.
Many Europeans are indeed concerned about pushing Putin too far, mindful of their economic links with Russia, including a heavy dependence on Moscow's gas and oil exports. There is also concern about the time required for sanctions and the legal hurdles that must be cleared.
Moreover, European sanctions require unanimity among the 28 member states, something that would be extremely difficult to achieve when it comes to Russia, with some small countries, such as Cyprus, having close ties to Moscow.
Blowing hot and cold
While the possibility of sanctions came as a first, ministers also sought to strike a balance between pressure on Moscow and finding a way to calm the situation.
Germany, France and Britain, the EU's most-powerful nations, are all advocating mediation, possibly via the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, while not ruling out economic measures if Moscow does not cooperate.
"Crisis diplomacy is not a weakness but it will be more important than ever to not fall into the abyss of military escalation," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters as he arrived for the talks in Brussels.
But EU governments did agree during preparatory talks to suspend discussions with Russia on visa matters, immediately or only after giving Moscow some time to de-escalate the conflict with Ukraine.
Ministers also discussed the possibility of imposing an arms embargo on Russia but after several hours of talks there was no decision yet and some governments had expressed reservations.
Underlining the need for dialogue, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Putin late on Sunday and suggested a "fact-finding" mission to Ukraine, possibly led by the Vienna-based OSCE, currently chaired by Switzerland.
Council 'permanently seized'
Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers decided to keep the Council "permanently seized, in order to be in a position to take rapidly all necessary measures" in view of the rapidly-evolving situation in Crimea.
They also confirmed the bloc's readiness to support Ukraine with an international assistance package, in accordance with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).