BRUSSELS -- EU ambassadors have agreed to extend sanctions against Russia for another six months over Moscow's actions in Ukraine, despite some calls for a more conciliatory approach from within the bloc.
Ambassadors from the 28 member states of the European Union approved the decision in principle.
The measure will now go to EU ministers for formal approval, possibly on June 24, and EU leaders will have to okay it at a summit in Brussels next week, but diplomats said there was no doubt they would.
The sanctions, which target the energy, financial, and defense sectors of Russia's economy, were due to expire at the end of July and will now run to January 2017.
They were first imposed in June and July 2014 after Russia's annexation of Crimea and its support for pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The EU last week rolled over for another year separate measures regarding an investment ban and other economic sanctions applicable to Crimea.
The EU has also imposed a separate set of visa-ban and asset-freeze measures against individual Russians and Ukrainians for backing the separatist cause in early 2014. These measures run until September.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had pushed for prolonging the sanctions, with reports suggesting she convinced countries such as Slovakia, Hungary, and Italy to set aside their objections and keep sanctions in place for another six months.
RFE/RL's correspondent in Brussels says the June 21 decision appears to be a victory for EU states that have taken a harder line on Russia, such as Poland and Lithuania, as well as European Council President Donald Tusk, who sought a decision on the sanctions well ahead of the official July 31 deadline for renewal.
Merkel has guided the bloc toward maintaining sanctions over Russia's occupation and seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its support for Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on June 21 that there was no alternative to the EU sanctions to pressure Russia to implement the cease-fire agreement it signed up to in Minsk in February 2015.
"Sanctions are the only instrument left," Poroshenko said ahead of a meeting with French President Francois Hollande. "There is no alternative to that."
However, there are signs of divisions emerging even within Merkel's own cabinet.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently suggested that the EU should gradually phase out sanctions against Russia if there were substantial progress in the peace process.
"Sanctions are not an end in [and of] themselves. They should rather give incentives for a change in behavior," he told the RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland, a network of local newspapers.
French lawmakers, meanwhile, signaled that they are becoming impatient with sanctions when the approved a resolution earlier in June urging that the sanctions be gradually lifted.
But French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on June 20 repeated his government's assurances that the sanctions will stay in place for now, saying that Russia and Ukraine are still not complying with their obligations under the Minsk accords.
Ayrault said the EU needed to see "real, concrete, significant progress" toward implementing the Minsk agreements, which are aimed at resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces.
"Whatever sympathy we can have for the Russian people and for Russia, we must be clear," Ayrault said, "the Minsk agreements must be implemented and respected."
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, speaking at an economic forum in St. Petersburg last week, said he attended the event to keep the lines of communication open with Moscow, but added that he supported ongoing sanctions.
The visit by Juncker, who was accompanied by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, would have been unthinkable a year ago.
Slovakia, one of the biggest skeptics on Russia sanctions, is due to take over the EU presidency in July and will be in that role in January when the issue of another six-month extension of sanctions is revisited.
With reporting by Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels, Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, and TASS