EU decision on Russia sanctions by Friday

BRUSSELS, Belgium –European Union nations will decide on new sanctions against Moscow by Friday, September 5, with Russian aggression towards Ukraine requiring the strongest possible response, incoming EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said.

Mogherini, currently the Italian foreign minister, said Russia could no longer be considered a "strategic partner" for the west and urged NATO to reassure eastern European nations that they would be protected from attack.

Leaders of the 28-member EU decided at a summit on Saturday to impose new sanctions against Russia, after alleging that Moscow had deployed troops and weapons to back a rebel counter-offensive in southeast Ukraine.

Mogherini sounded her toughest note yet since she was nominated to the EU diplomatic post at the same summit, in a bid to reassure countries on Russia's borders that had feared she may be too soft on Moscow.

"Things on the ground are getting more and more dramatic," she told reporters Tuesday, September 2, after meeting European parliamentarians.

"We speak about an aggression and I think that we need to respond in the strongest possible way to that, in order that pressure is put to find a political solution."

The European Commission, the bloc's executive, would present a package of new tougher measures to ambassadors in Brussels as soon as Wednesday, Mogherini said.

The EU ambassadors are "meeting again tomorrow, Thursday and Friday, and by Friday a decision will be adopted".

She said the sanctions would be in the four areas -- financial sanctions, arms, dual military/civilian materials and technology -- that were targeted by earlier rounds of sanctions.

'Time of complete darkness'

Western nations have accused Russia of sending troops and weapons to support a counteroffensive by pro-Kremlin rebels in eastern Ukraine. Violence in Ukraine since April has claimed nearly 2,600 lives.

Mogherini, who assumes her role as EU foreign policy chief in November, said the fact that there had been peace talks in Belarus involving Russia and Ukraine this week was a "little light in a time of complete darkness."

Addressing concerns whether she was "pro-Russia or anti-Russia," Mogherini reached out to eastern members of NATO – which include Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – that are worried by an increasingly assertive Russia over Moscow's alleged military intervention in non-NATO Ukraine.

"All those countries in the alliance that share a border with Russia need to be sure that article five is not just a written text, (that) there are some measures that can be taken to ensure their security," Mogherini said.

Article five of NATO's Washington treaty calls for the alliance to come to the collective defence of any one member if it comes under attack.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said ahead of the Western military alliance's two-day summit in Wales that opens on Thursday that the growing Russian threat meant the Cold War-era bloc must create a bigger presence in eastern Europe.

Mogherini add: "I think Russia stays a strategic player in the regional and global challenges, like it or not -- but I don't think it is a strategic partner anymore." –