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EU keeps up pressure on Russia by extending economic sanctions

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - European Union foreign ministers extended economic sanctions on Russia until Jan. 31 on Monday, keeping up pressure on Moscow to help resolve the Ukraine conflict.

Russia described the move as a triumph for the “Russophobe” lobby in the EU and moved to extend a ban on Western food imports, imposed in response to U.S. and European sanctions, for a further six months.

EU ministers meeting in Luxembourg approved a six-month extension of sanctions that were “introduced in response to Russia’s destabilizing role in eastern Ukraine,” an EU statement said. That ratified a decision taken by officials last week.

The sanctions on Russia’s energy, defense and financial sectors, originally imposed in July 2014 for one year, were the EU’s toughest response to Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and what the EU says is Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Russia’s government submitted a proposal to extend its food import ban for six months to President Vladimir Putin, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was quoted as saying by TASS news agency.

“Taking into account that the European Union has extended sanctions against the Russian Federation for half a year, I ask you to prepare my proposal to the president to extend the presidential degree (on the ban) for this period,” Medvedev told a meeting with his deputies.

Russia imposed a ban on Western food imports last year after the West imposed visa bans and asset freezes over Moscow’s role in the Ukraine crisis.

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The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was deeply disappointed that the view of the “Russophobe lobby” in the EU had prevailed, alluding to divisions within the EU over sanctions.

“At the same time, Brussels is deliberately silent that it (the decision) will definitely result in hundreds of thousands or, by some estimates, even a couple of million Europeans losing their jobs,” it said.

“It looks especially cynical that the decision … was taken on June 22, the day when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union (in World War Two),” it added.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the EU’s decision to extend sanctions.

“The sanctions are a strong signal and a clear message that it has consequences when a country behaves in the way Russia has done in Ukraine,” he told a news conference in Brussels.

EU leaders agreed in March that economic sanctions on Russia would stay until a Minsk ceasefire deal in Ukraine is fully implemented.

The Minsk agreement sets a year-end deadline for Ukraine to regain full control over its border, a goal the EU is pushing strongly. Fighting has broken out again in eastern Ukraine despite the agreement.

Additional reporting by Katya Golubkova and Jack Stubbs in Moscow; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Dominic Evans