The European Union's unanimous resolve to punish Russia for its aggression in Ukraine appeared to be cracking as French, German, Austrian and Italian leaders voiced concern at an alliance summit of inflicting too much pain on Moscow as its economy tumbles.
French President Francois Hollande was the first to step out of the 28-nation bloc's collective drive for further sanctions on Russia when they were discussed at a summit in Brussels on Thursday night.
"There were no new sanctions [adopted], because there should not be," Hollande told reporters after the session. He said the leaders had agreed to maintain the status quo in hopes of seeing the Kremlin follow through on recent hints that it is pressing pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine to honor a shaky cease-fire.
If Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers on his recent calls for peace in embattled eastern Ukraine "then there is no need for new sanctions -- on the contrary, in that case we should think about how we too could begin to de-escalate," Hollande said, according to the Deutsche Welle news agency.
France is one of the countries whose own economies have been hit by the sanctions against Russia. Delivery of two Mistral aircraft carriers built under contract for Russia has been canceled by Paris in conformance with a European Union and U.S. ban on sales of weapons and military assets to Russia.
Hollande's appeal for the European allies to keep sanctions relief on the table as a carrot to reward any positive changes in Russia's behavior toward Ukraine struck a chord with others in the alliance.
The European Union's new foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, warned that pushing Russia into a deeper economic crisis was in nobody's interest.
"The fact that Russia is in a difficult situation from a financial point of view is not good news, not for the Russian citizens, not for Ukraine and not for Europe and the rest of the world," she said after the Thursday night meeting.
Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi also expressed their opposition to any further economic pressures on Russia, which has seen its currency, the ruble, battered by the sharp fall in global oil prices and withering capital flight as foreign investors scuttle their Russian operations.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been heading the camp of EU leaders committed to keeping the economic pressure on the Kremlin until Putin reverses his illegal seizure of Ukraine's Crimea region and makes visible efforts to keep Russian arms and fighters out of eastern Ukraine.
But on Friday, Der Spiegel magazine published an interview with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in which he appeared to be siding with Hollande and other leaders who worry that excessive sanctions could backfire.
"It cannot be in our interests that the situation spin totally out of control," Steinmeier said of the economic turbulence in Russia, where consumer buying power has shriveled and dollar-based loans suddenly saddle many borrowers with unbearable debts.
To those who want to force Russia to its knees with further sanctions in the misguided belief that will bolster European security, "I can only warn against it," said Steinmeier, a veteran diplomat of the Social Democratic Party in governing partnership with Merkel's conservatives.
Thursday's gathering of EU leaders was the first chaired by former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who recently took up the mantle of European Council president. Poland and the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have remained steadfast in their views that the sanctions pressure should be maintained on Russia until it withdraws from Crimea.
The United States and the European Union have imposed targeted sanctions on Russia and its proxies in the separatist-occupied areas of eastern Ukraine, including visa bans for scores of officials and Kremlin insiders and restrictions on energy trade, banking and military sales and cooperation.
Russian troops invaded Crimea, home of Russia's Black Sea naval fleet based on what was leased territory from Ukraine, in late February after a pro-Europe rebellion toppled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, a close Kremlin ally.
Putin, who opposes Ukraine's pivot toward an EU alliance after decades of tight economic integration with Russia, has referred to the ouster of Yanukovich as a coup d'etat and routinely casts the new Ukrainian leadership as a throwback to the former Soviet republic's collaboration with Nazi Germany during World War II.
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