BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Italy unexpectedly demanded that a mooted extension of the European Union's economic sanctions on Russia go for further discussion within the bloc rather than be rubber-stamped by EU envoys who met on Wednesday.
The envoys aimed to approve a six-month extension to the sanctions, imposed on Moscow last year over the Ukraine crisis, without discussion after an agreement by EU leaders - including Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi - in the wings of the Group of 20 summit in Turkey last month.
But diplomats in Brussels said Rome was unhappy about Wednesday's plan for ambassadors to wave through the extension as a minor point in the day's meetings.
"We have asked for a discussion on the matter," said Tiziana d'Angelo, a spokeswoman for the Italian mission to the EU.
Maintaining unity is crucial for Europe's efforts to put pressure on Moscow to uphold a peace agreement and end the conflict between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that has killed 9,100 people since April, 2014.
Having earlier sanctioned individuals involved in the conflict with visa bans and asset freezes, the European Union, along with the United States, imposed economic sanctions on Russia in late July 2014, targeting its energy, banking and defense sectors.
Those sanctions expire at the end of January, a month after the deadline for meeting the terms of the peace deal agreed in Minsk by Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia in February this year.
Diplomats told Reuters that ambassadors from the 28 EU member states could try to pass the sanctions again on Thursday following a short discussion, or it could be dealt with by EU foreign ministers who meet on Dec. 14 in Brussels.
But some diplomats present at Wednesday's meeting took Italy's decision to mean Renzi wanted EU leaders to discuss the sanctions over dinner at their summit in Brussels on Dec. 17-18.
That worries some EU officials who fear it could reopen divisions in the bloc over how to deal with Russia, the EU's main energy supplier. The main focus of the summit is intended to be negotiations with Britain to continue its membership and efforts to contain irregular migration.
While eastern EU nations favor several more years of economic sanctions, countries with a closer relationship with Russia including Cyprus, Italy and Hungary believe dialogue is more important than trying to punish the Kremlin.
Italian spokeswoman D'Angelo said that it may not be needed to be discussed by leaders. "We think it is an important subject and deserves at least a quick exchange of views," she said, "Even if there is no disagreement on the substance."
Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Richard Balmforth