MOSCOW - Russia expelled several Polish diplomats for spying on Monday, deepening the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War as the EU eyed fresh sanctions against Moscow over the violence in Ukraine.
Fresh bloodshed in Ukraine between pro-Kremlin rebels and Kiev's forces added to the tensions after Russian President Vladimir Putin left a G20 summit in Brisbane early amid criticism from western leaders. Work resumed meanwhile to remove the debris of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 from eastern Ukraine, paving the way for its return to the Netherlands four months after it was downed, allegedly by the rebels using a Russian missile.
Moscow said Monday it had expelled a number of Polish diplomats for conduct "incompatible with their status", diplomatic jargon for espionage, adding that Warsaw had earlier expelled Russian diplomats on the same grounds. Poland - which has been one of the most hawkish of the 28 European Union states in its stance against Russia's role in Ukraine - confirmed Moscow's move was a "symmetric response".
Sanctions eyed 'for sure'
In Brussels, EU foreign ministers met to discuss hitting Russia with fresh sanctions, most likely targeting individuals linked to the violence in Ukraine, in which around 4,100 people have died.
New EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said sanctions would be discussed "for sure" in response to violations of a September peace deal in Ukraine and discredited elections held by separatists in November.
"But sanctions in themselves are not an objective. They can be an instrument if they come together with other measures," she said. These included pushing Ukraine to adopt reforms and carrying on dialogue with Russia, said Mogherini, the former Italian foreign minister whose appointment to the EU job was opposed by eastern states that saw her as too soft on Moscow.
The sanctions to be discussed Monday would most likely be limited to adding individuals to the list of those already hit with travel bans and asset freezes, rather than wider economic measures, ministers said. Many EU states are dependent on trade relations with Russia, and on Russian gas.
"We are ready to support these sanctions to persons and this will probably be one of the main points on the agenda," Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek told reporters. There were deep divisions within the EU's member states on the initial sanctions against Russia after the annexation of Crimea in March.
But the bloc took a harder stance after the shooting down of MH17 in July, with the loss of nearly 300 people.
Ten dead in fresh violence
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday called on the West not to lose hope in what may be a long struggle with Russia over Ukraine, but vowed that the Kremlin "will not prevail".
"We need to have the necessary patience for an uphill battle," Merkel said in a speech after the Brisbane summit. Western leaders at the summit, including US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron denounced Putin's "unacceptable" actions in Ukraine, warning of more sanctions to come unless he changed course.
The West would keep up the pressure for years if necessary, to get Russia to reverse course, said Cameron who branded the Russian president a "bully".
In the latest casualties in eastern Ukraine, seven Ukrainian soldiers and three police officers were killed in the past 24 hours, while one civilian was killed and eight wounded over the weekend, security officials said. An AFP reporter in the city heard fresh shelling early Monday.
Meanwhile, workers spent a second day recovering wreckage from the doomed Malaysian Airlines plane, which was shot down en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur over rebel-controlled territory. "The recovery of wreckage of flight MH17 has been continued this morning.
For the second day wreckage will be recovered for the investigation into the cause of the crash," the Dutch Safety Board said. The wreckage is being placed on trains and will eventually be returned to the Netherlands, which is leading the inquiry, it said.