DONETSK, Ukraine — European Union officials agreed Tuesday to ratchet up economic pressure on Russia as escalating fighting in Ukraine prevented investigators from getting to the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash site.
Some of the new sanctions target eight “cronies” of Russian President Vladimir Putin and three “entities” by limiting their access to EU capital markets, an EU official said on condition of anonymity. The people and entities will be named Wednesday, the official said.
The sanctions also will block new arms contracts between Europe and Russia, prohibit the export of European goods that can be used for both civilian and military purposes, and limit the export of energy-related equipment, the EU said in a prepared statement Tuesday evening.
The move adds to sanctions that Europe and the United States already had in place against Russia over its disputed annexation of Crimea and its support of pro-Russian rebels fighting the Ukrainian government.
“It is meant as a strong warning: Illegal annexation of territory and deliberate destabilization of a neighboring sovereign country cannot be accepted in 21st century Europe,” the European Council’s statement reads.
The United States is planning to add more sanctions of its own this week, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken announced Monday without elaborating. Those sanctions could come as soon as Tuesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
The United States and others say Russia has provided weapons to the rebels, including heavy weapons such as a missile system like the one believed used to down the Malaysian airliner 12 days ago.
But sanctions have so far failed to stem the flow of weapons or the fighting, which appeared to enter a dangerous new phase Tuesday on reports that Ukraine’s government had used short-range ballistic missiles against the rebels, according to three U.S. officials.
The weapons have a range of about 50 miles (80 kilometers) and pack up to 1,000-pound (454-kilogram) warheads. If the reports are accurate, they are the most deadly missiles to date used in the conflict.
The officials did not specify exactly where the missiles hit or what damage they caused.
One U.S. official said so far, there has been no reaction from Russia. A second official said it is not clear if the United States will show satellite imagery of the Ukrainian firings “because these are the good guys.”
Another of the U.S. officials called the firings “an escalation, but Ukraine has a right to defend itself.”
So far, the Ukrainian government has not publicly acknowledged the missile firings. CNN is seeking a comment from Kiev.
While U.S. officials say they don’t think pro-Russian rebels have used ballistic missiles, they remain concerned about how Russia might respond.
In a joint news conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised Ukrainian officials for proposing a peace plan that includes “serious and substantive dialogue with the Russian-backed separatists.”
But he said Russian officials “have not shown a shred of evidence that they really have a legitimate desire to end the conflict.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin “can make a huge difference if he chooses to,” Kerry said.
Investigators thwarted again
Kerry’s words come as international investigators and observers were prevented for the third straight day from reaching the MH17 crash site by fierce fighting in the area between the rebels and Ukrainian forces.
The Dutch Justice Ministry said the team was unable to leave the city of Donetsk because “there is too much fighting at the moment on and near the route to the disaster site.”
The 50-strong team of Dutch and Australian experts, accompanied by monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, was also forced to abandon its attempts to reach the site Sunday and Monday by fierce fighting.
OSCE official Ertugrul Apakan said at a news conference Tuesday that the international investigators and observers hope to access the site Wednesday or soon afterward.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, speaking alongside Apakan, said there was a plan in place for the group to make another attempt, without elaborating on what that was.
Kerry said investigators have already been delayed enough and need to get to work.
Twelve days since Flight 17 was blown out of the sky, the Dutch investigators in charge of finding out what happened have yet to lay eyes on the wreckage or the human remains believed still to be strewn across the huge debris field near the town of Torez.
“The site has to be cordoned off, the evidence has to be preserved,” Kerry said.
U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said that a Russian-made missile system was used to shoot down MH17 from rebel territory. Russia and the rebels have disputed the allegations and blamed Ukraine for the crash.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte asked Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in a phone call Tuesday morning to halt the fighting around the crash site so that investigators can access it, Rutte spokesman Jean Fransman said.
On Monday, Ukrainian forces launched an offensive to try to recapture a series of towns on the main road leading toward the debris field.
However, Andriy Lysenko, the spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told reporters it was the militants’ activities that have prevented access to the crash site, not fighting by Ukrainian forces.
He said the rebels would be forced to leave the area. “As soon as they leave, the experts will be able to start working there. But at the moment it’s dangerous; we cannot guarantee security on the territories occupied by the terrorists,” he said. Ukrainian authorities routinely refer to the rebels as terrorists. “We are doing everything to liberate the territories.”
Lysenko also accused the pro-Russian militants of using civilians as human shields as Ukrainian forces try to push them out of their strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Pieter Jaap Aalbersberg, head of the Dutch recovery mission, said Tuesday evening that his team and the OSCE decided it was not safe enough to drive to the crash site that morning.
“We are again disappointed, because we are highly motivated to carry out our mission,” Aalbersberg said. “As we have said before, we feel strongly that the relatives are entitled to have their loved ones and their personal belongings returned.
“Our inability to reach the crash site is frustrating. We are losing valuable time to recover the victims’ remains. However, we will not give up, and we intend to keep trying in the days ahead.”
Japan announced its own assets freeze Monday against Russian people and companies it considers directly involved in Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region. It said it would take concerted action with the EU and barred imports from Crimea.
With the move, Japan joins U.S. and European nations in hitting Russia with economic sanctions.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry responded Tuesday by warning that the move would harm relations between their two nations and was an “unfriendly and short-sighted step based on a deeply mistaken view about the real causes of what is happening in Ukraine.”
U.S. President Barack Obama held a joint call Monday with British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in which the leaders decided that further steps were needed to put pressure on Russia.
They agreed that Russia has failed to deescalate the crisis, a spokesman for Cameron said, and that “even since MH17 was shot down, Russia continues to transfer weapons across the border and to provide practical support to the separatists.
“Leaders agreed that the international community should therefore impose further costs on Russia and specifically that Ambassadors from across the EU should agree a strong package of sectoral sanctions as swiftly as possible.”
Russia: Checkpoint came under fire
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website Tuesday that a Russian checkpoint had come under fire from Ukrainian forces.
It says Ukrainian officers used automatic weapons and grenades at the Gukovo customs checkpoint, causing damage.
On Tuesday, Klimkin, the Ukrainian foreign minister, denied that Ukrainian forces had fired into Russia.
The defense minister for the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Igor Strelkov, said Monday that there had been “extremely severe” battles between his rebel forces and the Ukrainian military in the area of Shaktarsk and Torez.
He said a number of injured rebel fighters, as well as some medical personnel, had been evacuated from Donetsk to Russia. Moscow has denied arming and supporting the rebels, but Strelkov’s words indicate that Russia is serving as a kind of haven for the rebels.
Strelkov also denied his fighters had the weapons system needed to shoot down an airliner.
Cruise missile tests claim
Also on Monday, the United States accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, citing cruise missile tests, senior State Department and White House officials said.
“This is a very serious matter which we have attempted to address with Russia for some time now,” said a senior State Department official.
Russia’s suspected violation of the treaty was first reported Monday by The New York Times.
Officials told CNN that Washington had called for senior-level talks, but insisted the situation was not related to the violence in Ukraine.
CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh reported from Donetsk and Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported in London. CNN’s Lindsay Isaac, Ivan Watson, Barbara Starr, Michael Pearson, Susannah Palk, Alexander Felton, Mick Krever, Lindsay Isaac and Laura Bernardini contributed to this report.