MOSCOW Russia announced a ban on most fruit and vegetable imports from Poland on Wednesday and said it may extend the restrictions to the rest of the European Union, its first apparent retaliation to new Western sanctions imposed over Ukraine a day earlier.
Moscow, which buys more than 2 billion euros worth of EU fruit and vegetables a year making it by far the biggest export market for the products, said the ban was for sanitary reasons.
Polish fruit growers said the ban was political, although Russia denied this. Moscow has frequently been accused in the past of using sanitary inspections to restrict trade from countries with which it has political disputes. The EU said it was studying the announcement, describing it as a surprise.
The ban came a day after the European Union and United States imposed their first sanctions aimed at hitting broad sectors of the Russian economy, restricting sales of equipment for the oil and defense industries and limiting access by state-controlled banks to Western capital markets.
Moscow denies Western accusations that it has armed and supported rebels who are fighting Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine. Russian officials have condemned Tuesday's sanctions.
Pressure for sanctions in the West increased dramatically after July 17, when a Malaysian airliner was shot down over rebel held territory with what Washington and Brussels believe was a surface-to-air missile acquired from Russia.
According to European Commission figures, the EU sold Russia 1.2 billion euros worth of fruit and 886 million euros worth of vegetables in 2011, accounting for 28 percent of the bloc's exports of fruit and 21.5 percent of its vegetables. For some EU countries, including Poland, the percentages are even higher.
By first targeting Poland, which was part of the Soviet bloc until just over two decades ago, Moscow is striking at one of the EU's most strident supporters of increased sanctions against Russia for its backing of rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Russia's Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance Service (VPSS) will restrict most fruit and vegetable imports from Poland starting from Aug. 1, due to "the violation of certification and the identification of quarantine products", spokesman Alexei Alekseenko said.
He said the move was part of a VPSS plan to consider restricting all or some fruit imports from the entire EU, announced with little fanfare on Monday while European countries were debating the latest sanctions. The VPSS said at the time it would decide the fate of overall EU imports in a week or two.
"Our restrictions are not linked with EU sanctions, because this situation (with Polish imports) has been developing for a long time," Alekseenko said. "We impose these limits not to try to get something from the Polish side, but to have our rights observed as a WTO (World Trade Organization) member."
Tomasz Solis, deputy head of the Polish Fruitgrowers Association, told Reuters the decision was "politically motivated".
"The political situation in Ukraine would sooner or later have affected our relations with Russia," he said. "Russia is one of our prime target markets, with 60 or perhaps even 70 percent of our exports going there."
A spokesman for the EU's executive European Commission said it was studying the new restrictions.
"Let me be very clear that they came unannounced by the Russian authorities - they were not announced beforehand - so what the commission will do now is to analyze the measures and the grounds they have been taken, and we will take action in due course," the Commission spokesman said in Brussels.
(Additional reporting by Wiktor Szary in Warsaw and Julia Fioretti in Brussels; Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Peter Graff)