UK's Hammond: Russia 'going backwards' on sanctions relief

TBILISI (Reuters) - Russia is moving further away from having Western sanctions lifted over its role in the Ukraine crisis, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told Reuters on Wednesday.

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Hammond, who was in Georgia to meet Prime Minister Georgy Kvirikashvili and to visit the BP-operated South Caucasus Pipeline, has a track record of robustly criticizing Russia’s actions.

His comments run counter to statements from some European diplomats and business interests who argue Russia is getting closer to having sanctions lifted after they were imposed by the West over Moscow’s support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

“If Russia wants the sanctions lifted, then its course of actions is very clear. It has to comply completely with its obligations under the Minsk agreements,” he told Reuters in an interview, referring to a shaky ceasefire deal between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces.

“Unfortunately, what we’ve seen over the last couple of months, is an increase in violations of the ceasefire,” he said. “So, we appear to be going backwards over the last weeks and months.”

International monitors have warned of increasing violence in eastern Ukraine, saying rebels backed by Russia have moved heavy weaponry back to the front line.

Western powers also say they have satellite images, videos and other evidence to show Russia is providing weapons to the rebels and that Moscow has troops engaged in the conflict that erupted following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014.

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Russia denies such accusations.

“We must not forget that this was an incursion into the sovereign territory of Ukraine, Russia annexed Crimea illegally in international law,” Hammond said.

“Of course, reforms and steps are needed on the Ukrainian side as well. But we should never equate the two. Russia is the aggressor in this conflict.”

Extended at the end of last year, the Minsk peace deal signed by Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany aims to give Ukraine back control of its border with Russia, see all heavy weapons withdrawn, return hostages and allow an internationally monitored local election in the east.

Hammond earlier told a news conference Russia represented a threat to all countries because of its disregard for international norms.

When asked by Reuters whether Russia still posed a threat to countries in the region such as Georgia and the Baltic states, Hammond told a news conference:

“Russia ignores the norms of international conduct and breaks the rules of the international system. That represents a challenge and a threat to all of us.”

Writing by Margarita Antidze and Jack Stubbs; Editing by Hugh Lawson