BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders pledged early Friday to keep all options open to respond to any atrocities committed by President Bashar Assad's regime and his Russian backers in Syria but stopped short of threatening Moscow with sanctions.
Despite strong rhetoric against Russia's military actions in Syria, notably in aiding regime attacks on the besieged city of Aleppo, the leaders failed to agree on a tough joint statement sending a clear message to Moscow that it could face punitive measures.
As they debated ways to take a unified approach toward President Vladimir Putin, Russian warships steamed toward the English Channel on their way to the Mediterranean, bound for the waters off Syria, watched by NATO navies.
"Russia's strategy is to weaken the EU," said European Council President Donald Tusk, after chairing the first day of a two-day summit in Brussels.
Tusk said the EU leaders strongly condemned attacks on civilians by the Syrian regime and its backers, led by Russia, called for a lasting ceasefire declared and stands ready to consider "all available options if these atrocities continue."
French President Francois Hollande said "the aim, during this crucial time of ceasefire in Aleppo, is to find a path toward talks and negotiations, and to bring an end to the atrocities that we have witnessed for too long."
"If there are any more atrocities, all options would be considered," he said, without specifically mentioning the word sanctions.
One of the fundamental reasons for the EU's internal divisions over dealing with Putin is economic. Unlike the United States, the EU depends on Russia for much of its energy, and as a major market for its exports.
Due to EU sanctions and the retaliatory measures imposed by Russia, trade between Hungary and Russia dropped by nearly half in 2015. Italy and Slovakia, which now holds the rotating EU presidency, also have been reluctant to back harsher sanctions.
"We have approved a document that recalls the need to get as quickly as possible to an agreement, to a real truce and to a political transition process that we have been awaiting for a while. But I think that there is no point in also adding here a reference to sanctions," Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said in the early hours of Friday.
The leaders had hoped to hold broader talks about Russia ties without the issue of sanctions weighing over them, as they have in the past most notably over Russia's actions in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea.
However, the siege of Aleppo and increasing civilian casualties in Syria meant that punitive measures were being considered once again, however cautiously.
Earlier Thursday, as she arrived for the summit, British Prime Minister Theresa May said it was "vital that we work together to continue to put pressure on Russia to stop its appalling atrocities, its sickening atrocities, in Syria."
Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas also took a hard line against Moscow and Assad.
"They have the ambition of turning Aleppo into a new Grozny. This is absolutely unacceptable," he said, referring to the destruction of the Chechen capital in 1999-2000 by Russian troops.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Loefven summed up the hesitancy on sanctions, saying "I don't think there is unity now ... but I think it should be on the table, that this is an option for the future."
John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.