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Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson gestures during a European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium February 6, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir


By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union will keep sanctions on Russia until Moscow drops its support for the separatist rebellion in Ukraine, foreign ministers said on Monday, as U.S. President Donald Trump promises better ties with the Kremlin.

The EU appears determined to maintain a united front on foreign policy goals that are at odds with Trump on many issues, including Iran, China and the role of NATO.

"There is no case for relaxation of the sanctions," UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said, speaking at an EU foreign affairs council meeting about measures implemented with the U.S. in 2014 against Russia's energy, financial and defence sectors. The European Union, although reliant on Russian oil and gas, says it will never recognise Moscow's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and expects the Kremlin to abide by the Minsk peace deal brokered for eastern Ukraine.

"I cannot say where the U.S. administration stands on this but I can say where the Europeans stand on this," said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, noting that she would discuss Ukraine, as well as the conflict in Syria, with White House officials in Washington at the end of the week.

She expects to meet National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner as well as U.S. senators, she said.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence would visit Brussels on Feb. 20, Mogherini said. But EU diplomats fear any U.S. move to relax sanctions on Russia would make it difficult for the European Union to keep sanctions in place. Russia "doves" including Hungary, Italy, Greece and Bulgaria would push to re-establish business dealings.

France and Germany, who helped negotiate the Minsk peace deal with Russia and Ukraine, told the EU ministers' meeting on Monday it was crucial to ensure any discussion of sanctions remained directly linked to the conflict in Ukraine, which has killed some 10,000 people since April 2014.

In a pre-inauguration interview, Trump proposed relaxing U.S. sanctions in return for Russia scaling back its nuclear arsenal, a position EU diplomats rejected.

However, EU ministers have welcomed comments by Trump's new ambassador to the United Nations that Washington would not lift sanctions against Russia until the country withdraws from Crimea.

At the closed-door meeting in Brussels, Johnson called on his EU counterparts not to yield to what he termed "Ukraine fatigue", diplomats said.

Fourteen EU countries including Britain, Sweden and Denmark called for renewed backing for Kiev in a joint statement presented at the meeting. That would include approving visa-free travel for Ukrainians in the EU and full implementation of the EU-Ukraine free-trade agreement, which still needs to win the backing of the Dutch parliament.

(Editing by Andrew Roche)

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