PARIS (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande said on Thursday it would be “intolerable and unacceptable” if it were proven that Russian troops had entered Ukrainian territory, warning that a further escalation would lead to more sanctions.
Ukraine accused Russia on Thursday of bringing troops into the southeast of the country in support of pro-Moscow separatist rebels there. Russia’s defense ministry denied the allegation.
“If it was proved true that Russian soldiers are present on Ukrainian soil, this would be intolerable and unacceptable,” he said.
He urged Russia to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and immediately stop all support to separatists in the east of its former Soviet neighbor.
However, he also called for the authorities in Kiev to show restraint in their military operations and accept a large decentralisation for Russian-speaking populations in the region.
“Europe will maintain (sanctions), even increase them if the escalation increases. I don’t want it because it is neither in Russia’s interest nor our interest,” Hollande said.
“But Russia cannot hope to be a 21st century power yet not respect the rules.”
NATO said on Thursday that well over 1,000 Russian troops were operating inside Ukraine, marking a significant escalation of Moscow’s military involvement in the country.
French reluctance to confirm the Russian operations coincides with intense pressure from some European allies and the United States to halt its plans to sell Mistral helicopter carriers to Moscow, with the first being delivered in October.
France has rebuffed those calls, saying that cancelling the deal would do more damage to Paris than Moscow, illustrating the limitations of European Union sanctions meant to punish Russia.
Officials have said that one of the reasons Paris cannot back out of the contract is that it would send a negative message to future defense clients that France does not always honor its deals.
Francois Heisbourg, chairman of the Paris-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that with India’s new prime minister due to visit France after the first Mistral delivery, Hollande would do everything to avoid cancelling the Mistral deal.
France is in final negotiations to conclude one of its biggest defense deals in its history to sell New Delhi 126 Rafale fighter jets.
“Hollande has a big problem because he has the Mistral deal. He is going to keep pretending that nothing is happening for as long as he possibly can,” Heisbourg said.
“Of the major countries, I assume France would be the last one to state the obvious. They have a stake in denying this for as long as they can and only changing their mind when the evidence is completely unambiguous.”
Paris has repeatedly said that other countries must share the burden in imposing a new round of sanctions on Russia and that any measures should also include the energy and financial sectors as well as defense.
Hollande has said he would be ready to review the second Mistral delivery due by 2016 if the situation worsened in Ukraine.
Editing by Andrew Callus/Mark Heinrich