Russia, West trade barbs ahead of Ukraine talks in Paris

Paris (France) (AFP) - The leaders of Russia, France and Germany clashed over the Ukraine crisis Monday, as the EU extended sanctions on Moscow on the eve of key diplomatic talks in Paris.

After a 45-minute three-way telephone conversation, German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted a "worrying" number of breaches in a ceasefire agreement clinched in February in Minsk, according to a government spokeswoman in Berlin.

"Reports from the observation mission of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) show that the use of arms, especially the recent rise in heavy weaponry, is mainly coming from separatists supported by Russia," Berlin said.

French President Francois Hollande meanwhile blasted "insufficient" progress in the diplomatic efforts to resolve the 15-month Ukraine conflict, which has claimed 6,500 lives and driven more than a million people from their homes.

Paris and Berlin "raised the need to put pressure on the various parties" given the lack of progress, said a source close to the French president.

But the Russian side heaped the blame on Kiev, stressing "the need for the Ukrainian forces to immediately stop shelling Donbass settlements," the Kremlin said in a statement, referring to rebel-held eastern Ukraine.

The war of words came as Ukraine reported the death of two soldiers in the first day of fighting with the pro-Russian insurgents in the east.

The foreign ministers of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia are due to discuss the shaky ceasefire in Paris on Tuesday.

The crisis in eastern Ukraine has pushed diplomatic relations between the West and Russia to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War and earlier Monday, the European Union decided to extend sanctions on Moscow.

European Union foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg formally agreed to prolong to January 2016 the punitive economic action against Russia, as they try to force Moscow to implement the Minsk peace deal.

Russia hit back immediately, with the foreign minister saying Moscow was "deeply disappointed" over the decision to extend what it termed the "illegal restrictions" pushed through by the "Russophobic lobby."

The decision was "guaranteed to cause hundreds of thousands of Europeans to lose their jobs," it said, as Moscow prepared to prolong its embargo on Western food imports in response.

It also described as "cynical" the fact that the decision was taken on June 22 -- the same day that Nazi Germany launched its devastating invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

- 'Rapid response force' -

On the military front, NATO head Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance would approve plans this week to more than double the size of its rapid response force, having already created a special spearhead unit as part of the fallout from the Ukraine crisis.

"NATO defence ministers... (will) take a decision to further increase the strength and capacity of the NATO Response Force to 30,000 to 40,000 troops, more than double its current size," Stoltenberg said ahead of a meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Brussels.

Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of sending regular troops into eastern Ukraine to boost separatist forces in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions -- accusations Moscow flatly denies.

However, the secretary of Russia's security council said earlier Monday it was impossible to stop Russians from going to fight in Ukraine because they are guided by "emotions."

Deployments of volunteers from Russia are no secret and various organisations have openly held collection drives for military gear in Moscow and elsewhere.