epa05640918 A general view from the roof of the Ritz-Carlton hotel on the Kremlin, the Red Square and the Historical Museum in Moscow, Russia, 21 November 2016. EPA/SERGEI ILNITSKY
The Kremlin in Moscow: 24 Ukrainian sailors are being held by Russian authorities © EPA

Western nations are close to agreeing new sanctions against Russia in a co-ordinated push aimed at punishing Moscow for its aggression towards Ukraine in the Sea of Azov.

The measures are expected to be discussed at a meeting of EU foreign ministers next Monday and could be levied over the next two months, according to diplomats briefed on the discussions.

“This is waiting in the wings,” said one of the diplomats, citing internal documents, adding that they expected the sanctions to be tabled by the end of March.

The fresh move to check what is seen in western capitals as a persistent campaign of malign behaviour by Russia, would be jointly applied by the US and the EU, diplomats said.

One western government official added that the sanctions were expected to be directed at those individuals and companies involved in Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Kerch strait in November.

More than two months after the incident, and despite repeated appeals from the US and EU states to release them, 24 Ukrainian sailors are still being detained by the Russian authorities.

The incident followed mounting tensions in the strait, which separates Crimea from the Russian mainland. The strait is the only access point from the Black Sea to the Azov Sea and is jointly administered by Moscow and Kiev.

The incident sparked renewed fears in Ukraine that the Kremlin was preparing a new offensive in the east of the country. However, while the conflict is smouldering in the Donetsk region, so far no new big military push has been made by Russian-backed forces.

Despite this, some western countries are thought to be disappointed at the lack of tough action taken iafter the Azov clashes. In December, France and Germany opposed calls for new sanctions, asking for more time to negotiate the release of the sailors and their three ships.

Another diplomat, who declined to be named, said however that attitudes were hardening following Russia’s failure to release the sailors. Patience is also running out after Moscow’s attempted assassination of former Russian double agent Sergei Skipral in the UK last March and the attempted hack of the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, in the Netherlands in April.

“Everyone in the EU will back new sanctions because Russia is showing no signs of progress on any front,” they said. “There’s nothing positive that even those against sanctions could point to and resist new measures.”

“Both the US and Europe are looking into what additional measures we should be taking if Russia fails to return the sailors and continues to make those assertions of control of the Kerch strait,” Kurt Volker, US special envoy for Ukraine, said last month.

While the US is working closely with the EU on the Azov sanctions, the latter are likely to be kept separate from other moves being discussed in Washington, including threatened measures against the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline being built by Kremlin-controlled Gazprom to Germany. A spokesperson for the US government declined to comment.

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