The European Union said on Thursday it would soon take Russia to the World Trade Organisation to try to push Moscow to lift its ban on pork exports from the bloc, in a row that has been intensified by the crisis in Ukraine.
Brussels says that by blocking all EU pork exporters - notably from Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany - Moscow has reacted disproportionately to an outbreak of African Swine Fever in Lithuania.
"The EU has no other option at this stage but to start preparing to file legal action against Russia on this issue at the WTO in the very near future," EU trade spokesman John Clancy said. The WTO has already been briefed on the dispute, according to documents circulated in Geneva and seen by Reuters.
Efforts to lift the pork ban have been complicated by tensions over Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, which prompted the EU to imposed travel bans and asset freezes on selected Russian officials.
Russia says it is concerned that African Swine Fever could spread from Lithuania to farmed pigs in Poland and across Eastern Europe, insisting that the entire EU territory should be quarantined until it can be deemed free from the disease. Its envoy to the EU has said it would be "utterly irresponsible" to lift the ban.
EU officials say the measure is Russian retaliation for their push to encourage Ukraine to sign a free-trade deal with the European Union, rather than for Kiev to join a Russian-led Eurasian customs union.
The EU is working to revive a trade deal that Ukraine's previous leadership rejected in November in favour of cash from Moscow, triggering protests that led to bloodshed in Kiev and the ouster of president Viktor Yanukovich.
"The EU has exhausted all possible diplomatic avenues," Clancy said, following months of talks between Moscow and a string of European commissioners since the ban on Jan. 24.
Russia is the EU's third-biggest trading partner after the United States and China, with trade flows worth 335 billion euros ($455 billion) in 2012, the latest available data show. Russia buys a quarter of the EU's annual pork exports.
Russia and Belarus banned Lithuanian pork imports shortly after African Swine Fever was confirmed in two hunted wild boars in the Baltic state in January. There is no cure for the virus, which is most common at small farms and is considered harmless to humans.
The European Commission has proposed to Russian authorities that they temporarily exclude Lithuanian produce from EU pork sold to Russia, but said Russia does not accept such a compromise.
Lithuania has proposed a fence along its 700 km (435 mile) border with Belarus to prevent migration of wild boars. Currently only about 70 km of the border are fenced.
The EU accuses Moscow of a string of restrictive trade practices including policies to protect the Russian car industry, and says Russia needs to play by global trade rules as a member of the World Trade Organization. (Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)