BRUSSELS — European Union nations agreed Tuesday to extend sanctions against Russia until January, E.U. diplomats said, a show of unity despite growing dissent in Europe about whether to continue the measures much longer.
The closed-door decision by ambassadors from the 28 E.U. nations is subject to approval by the bloc’s senior leaders. But E.U. diplomats said the move was not expected to be altered. The sanctions, which expire at the end of July, would be extended by six months until the end of January.
The measures target Russia’s energy, financial and defense sectors, strictly curtailing the trade that E.U. businesses are allowed to conduct with Russian partners.
The toughest sanctions were imposed after the July 2014 downing of a Malaysia Airlines airliner over separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.
E.U. leaders led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel have tied the repeal of the sanctions to progress on the Ukrainian peace deal known as the Minsk agreement. That truce called for the eventual handover of control of rebel-held portions of Ukraine’s border with Russia to elected authorities in Kiev, along with constitutional reforms that would give more autonomy to rebellious, Russia-affiliated territories in eastern Ukraine.
Neither side has made much progress in living up to the deal, and low-level fighting continues in Ukraine. But there are widening divisions among E.U. countries about whether to keep the sanctions on Russia at full force, amid heavy pressure from European businesses that want to resume trade with a country that had long been a major customer.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi visited a business forum in St. Petersburg last week to call for friendlier ties. There are even splits inside hard-line Germany, where Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned NATO last week not to engage in “saber-rattling and war cries” against Russia.
And French President François Hollande said Tuesday after a meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that he foresees “the gradual lifting of sanctions” if the Ukraine truce is implemented.
E.U. officials say they expect a broader discussion to take place among national leaders this year, possibly in October. A unanimous decision by the E.U. would again be required to extend the sanctions.
The Obama administration, which has coordinated sanctions policy with Europe, has pushed hard for continuing the measures while the Minsk agreement remains unfulfilled.