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'Zero Progress': The Beef Between Ukraine And Russia Just Got Fiercer

After four years of deadly conflict, there's no end in sight as the EU's sanctions against Russia are extended.

The sanctions targeting Russia's economy were set to end next month, but European Council President Donald Tusk said the European Union had unanimously agreed to prolong them.

Tusk cited "zero progress in implementation of Minsk agreements", which could see tensions between the Kremlin and western Europe worsen.

The agreements refer to peace accords which Moscow made with Ukraine, Germany and France, intended to end conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Tusk also called for the immediate release of 24 Ukrainian sailors, who were detained by Russia last month, accused of illegally entering territorial waters.

The incident saw Russian forces open fire and seize two small armored vessels and a tug boat, sparking diplomatic outrage with Russia accused of military aggression.

Seized Ukrainian military vessels are seen at Crimean port in November. Getty Images

This week, the lawyer's of the two navy captains said their clients would not be testifying at their upcoming trials because they considered themselves prisoners of war.

The conflict on the Azov Sea sparked fresh tensions in the area, with Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko taking the extraordinary measure of instigating 30-days of martial law in border regions and stepping up security around nuclear power stations and Black Sea ports.

The escalation of tensions even propelled Ukraine to ban entry to Russian men of combat age, from entering the country.

“(Russia) has deployed land forces of around 80,000 Russian troops, about 1,400 artillery and missile systems, 900 tanks, 2,300 armored vehicles, about 500 planes and 300 helicopters,” Poroshenko tweeted.

Earlier this month the commander of Ukraine's armed forced told Reuters, Russia posed "the greatest military threat since 2014."

Ukrainian crew member of detained naval ships. Image: Reuters

The Kremlin has denied the allegations.

“It’s obvious that this painstakingly thought-through and planned provocation was aimed at igniting another source of tension in the region in order to create a pretext to ramp up sanctions against Russia,” the Foreign Ministry said in a November statement.

Associate Professor of National Security and Strategic Studies at Curtin University Dr Alexey Muraviev told 10 daily it was surprising Poroshenko had resisted to impose martial law in times of greater reasonable grounds.

"Yes, the incident is serious -- but in the magnitude of things that have happened in the past this is not the most dramatic stand-off between Russia and Ukraine," Muraviev said at the time.

Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia of deploying up to 80,000 troops to the region. Source: Reuters

He said while Ukraine may have expected Russia would back down and let its ships through, this would have been a "massive political slap in the face" for Vladimir Putin, who is facing worsening domestic popularity pressures.

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Director of the Ukraine Democracy Initiative at the University of Technology Sydney and the University of Sydney, Dr Olga Oleinikova agreed and said the timing of Ukraine's martial law was very controversial.

"It doesn’t actually solve any problems with aggression from Russia," Oleinikova told 10 daily.

"It actually imposes more limitations inside the country itself."

Oleinikova explained the martial law implementation was being criticised for  going beyond restricting people's movements for national security and mobilisation of armed forces.

Source: Getty Images

But Oleinikova said critically, it limited people's right to gather, hold protests and take part in elections.

Poroshenko, whose support has drastically fallen in polls, will face his biggest popularity test when Ukrainians head to the polls early next year.

"Exercising military adventurism would be one of the very few ways he could attempt to approve his rating in the eyes of the national electorate," Muraviev said.

Ukraine's parliament approves a 30-day presidential martial law decree. Image: Getty

In November, martial law was restricted to 30 days and only in regions which share a Russian border, following parliamentary debate.

"All these regions are the ones where Porsoshenko has the lowest voting support," Oleinikova told 10 daily.

"He doesn't want those people to vote because they will vote against him," she said, adding the martial law period set to end later this month, could be extended by the parliament if they deemed necessary.

"Elections would not be held in those regions, which means he has effectively cut off the undesirable electorates."

The tensions have also further soured relations between Russia and the United States.

READ MORE: History Could Repeat As The U.S. & Russia Face A Nuclear Arms Stand-Off

U.S. national security advisor John Bolton this week announced Donald Trump would not meet his Russian counterpart while the Ukranian sailors remained detained.

“I don’t see circumstances in the foreseeable future where such a meeting could take place until the ships and the crews are released,” Bolton told reporters.

Source: Getty Images

With Reuters.

Contact the author: vgerova@networkten.com.au