European Union (EU) foreign ministers threatened Russia on Tuesday with harsher sanctions over Ukraine, but tougher talk may not be matched by much action after France's president signalled the disputed delivery of a warship to Moscow would go ahead.
The 28 EU ministers met under growing pressure from the United States and Britain to step up sanctions after the downing of a Malaysian Airlines plane last week in an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that while Berlin was still willing to talk with Russia, greater economic pressure was needed to make Moscow change course. "I say we remain open to defusing the situation with all political and diplomatic means but it will be necessary to accompany this willingness with higher pressure, which also means sharper measures," he told reporters on arrival.
Several other ministers entering the meeting called for an arms embargo on Russia to try to stem a flow of weapons that is fuelling the conflict, including surface-to-air missiles suspected of bringing down the airliner. The severity of the EU response could depend on the Netherlands, which suffered the greatest loss of life when flight MH17 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed last Thursday - 193 of the 298 people killed were Dutch.
Washington says the plane was brought down by a surface-to-air missile fired from territory in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russian separatists. US President Barack Obama has piled pressure on Europe for a more forceful response, and the three leading EU powers - Britain, France and Germany - said they should be ready to ratchet up sanctions.
But there was no sign that finding consensus would be any easier, with many European governments concerned to protect crucial Russian energy supplies and business ties with Moscow.
Differences between Britain and France burst into the open on Monday when President Francois Hollande said delivery of a first French helicopter carrier built for Russia would go ahead, hours after British Prime Minister David Cameron had said such a delivery would be "unthinkable" in his country. Hollande said the handover of a second warship under a 1.2 billion euro contract signed in 2011 by his predecessor would depend on Russia's attitude. Hollande won support among both his own Socialists and the conservative opposition UMP for standing up to outside pressure. Socialist Party leader Jean-Christophe Cambadelis said Cameron should "start by cleaning up his own backyard", referring to the presence of Russian oligarchs close to Putin in London.
Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said the Netherlands, which has until now has been hesitant about imposing tougher measures on Moscow, was not opposed to further sanctions. "There is no Dutch blockade of further sanctions. The Netherlands wants that the European Union makes a united, and also strong, clear, statement against the unrest in eastern Ukraine," he told reporters.
EU officials said the ministers were likely at most to add more names and entities to a list subject to asset freezes and visa bans, since any decision to move to so-called "phase three" economic sanctions would require a summit of EU leaders.
The next summit is not due until August 30 although heads of state and government could be convened earlier if there is agreement.
Britain's new Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said he would urge fellow ministers to "send a very clear and strong signal to Russia today". "This terrible incident happened in the first place because of Russia's support to the separatists in eastern Ukraine, because of the flow of heavy weapons from Russia into eastern Ukraine and we have to address that today," he told reporters. An arms embargo was "one of the things we have to look at," he said. Ministers from Sweden, Austria and Lithuania also called for an arms embargo on Russia. None of those countries sells any arms to Moscow.
"What happened is a consequence of the fact that since the end of June in particular, Russia has been stepping up significantly the shipments of heavy arms of different sort to the separatists. In violation of commitments and in violation of our demands. And that we must focus on," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told reporters.
In a step apparently designed to embarrass Russia, Britain's interior ministry announced a decision to hold a public inquiry into the death of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko, who died of radioactive polonium poisoning in London in 2006.
Litvinenko blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin on his deathbed for ordering his killing. Moscow denied any involvement. Britain had rejected a request for an inquest last year when relations with Russia were warmer.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said it was "time to name names" and to put Ukraine's breakaway republics of Luhansk and Donetsk on the EU's list of terrorist organisations.