European Union officials are working on a sweeping plan to block all Russian oil imports, amid international outcry over alleged atrocities committed by Vladimir Putin’s forces in Ukraine.
The big question remains whether countries led by Germany will agree to a ban or seek to delay it, after resisting an embargo on Russian energy imports in recent weeks.
There are signs that Berlin may now be ready to at least consider cutting off Russian oil – even if it is not yet in a position to give up gas imports – in response to what EU officials say. EU have qualified as war crimes in Ukraine.
Officials are now aiming to finalize the sanctions package before a meeting of EU ambassadors on Wednesday, when it would be signed, although any ban on oil, or even coal, may not be agreed in time.
The EU spends tens of billions of euros to import around a third of its oil from Russia and a ban would directly affect President Vladimir Putin’s ability to finance his war. At the same time, such a policy poses a short-term threat to EU economies which, like Germany, are heavily dependent on Russia for their energy.
On Monday, four diplomats said EU countries were considering an embargo on oil imports after world figures united in condemning the actions of Russian soldiers.
Shocking images emerged over the weekend of mass graves and corpses littering the streets, along with tales of torture, rape and murder, as Russian troops retreated from Bucha outside Kyiv .
The reports could mark a turning point in Europe’s response to the war. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Monday that countries would “urgently move forward, work on further sanctions against Russia”, calling the reported atrocities “war crimes”.
The imposition of an oil ban has already been discussed. Poland and the Baltic states have been calling for weeks to stop funding the Kremlin’s war machine through energy payments.
But now, public outrage over the atrocities in Ukraine has rekindled feelings that Brussels needs to do more than just tighten current sanctions.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki lashed out at Germany at a press conference on Monday, saying Berlin remained the main obstacle to imposing tougher sanctions on Russia. Even Hungary, he said, was not blocking the move.
French President Emmanuel Macron – who holds the rotating EU presidency – on Monday called for more sanctions targeting Russian energy, particularly coal and oil, and said he would coordinate with Berlin.
The German government has said Chancellor Olaf Scholz will “coordinate” with Macron. Officials have suggested Berlin is softening its opposition to an oil ban.
Gas is playing a much bigger role in heating and supplying power to industrial facilities than giving it up for governments, especially in Germany. But a ban on oil imports would be much more painful for Russia, because Moscow earns far more from selling oil than gas. “We seek to separate oil from gas,” said a diplomat.
German Finance Minister Christian Lindner also indicated on Monday that a decision on oil was under consideration, saying “at the moment it is not possible to cut off the gas supply, so we have to do the difference with oil, coal and gas at the moment”.
The sanctions require the unanimous agreement of all EU countries. Over the weekend, the European Commission organized small working groups to try to find a compromise that strikes a balance between punishing Moscow and limiting the worst economic suffering for EU members who depend on Russian energy. .
During these private discussions, about three groups of countries emerged regarding Russian energy, according to diplomats. There are those, like Poland and the Baltics, who believe it is morally inevitable that most energy imports should be stopped as soon as possible, regardless of the economic costs.
In a written statement to POLITICO, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė said that “every European coin paid for Russian gas and oil directly funds the war in Ukraine and the continued extermination of the nation.”
Then there is a group of countries like Belgium, which are not very dependent on oil and gas from Russia but have stopped calling for measures which they know will be harsh on their neighbours.
The third group includes Germany, which fears that a deep recession could ensue if energy supplies to its businesses and industries are cut off too abruptly in the short term. The Hungarian government has, both publicly and, according to diplomats, behind closed doors, taken a particularly tough stance on this issue.
Austria also resisted. Austrian Finance Minister Magnus Brunner said on Monday that his country was “against sanctions in the oil and gas sector”. Brunner said “you have to stay cool” when it comes to penalties. “If the sanctions hit you harder than the other, I don’t think that’s the right way to go.”
Italy has also been more cautious in imposing new sanctions, but officials now say they would not stand in the way if the EU proposed energy sanctions.
At this stage, no agreement is yet ready on measures to limit Russian energy imports as part of the sanctions package to be discussed by EU ambassadors on Wednesday.
Senior officials are expected to approve a package that was already in the works and has now been fast-tracked, diplomats said. This package would focus, among other things, on registering family members of oligarchs to avoid circumventing sanctions, tightening export controls and increasing trade in goods used for military purposes.
“There’s a huge amount of work going on,” an EU diplomat said. “We hope to see the package adopted by Wednesday or Thursday.”
Another EU diplomat said it was important not to rush the energy discussion following reports from Ukraine over the weekend. “We have to keep a cool head,” the diplomat said, pointing to the meeting of foreign ministers next week as a potential deadline for a decision on energy.
It would also give Germany and others a bit more time to prepare for the economic fallout.
Michael Kruse, the energy policy spokesman for the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP), one of Scholz’s two coalition partners, said it would take “a few weeks” for Germany to prepare for a Russian oil ban.
“We need to get out of Russian oil as quickly as possible,” Kruse said. “For this to succeed, new distribution routes to eastern Germany must be established, as Russian oil is mainly consumed there. This can be done in a matter of weeks.”
But other diplomats pushed back on a delay, saying it would be weak to offer anything more than a package of existing sanctions compliance measures after the atrocities reported over the weekend. A senior EU diplomat said he hoped the package would be “strengthened” before it reached EU ambassadors on Wednesday.
Paola Tamma, Bjarke Smith-Meyer, Camille Gijs and Hannah Roberts contributed reporting.
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