EU proposes ban on Russian oil imports in sixth round of sanctions

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BRUSSELS — The European Commission has proposed a plan to phase out Russian oil imports, ratcheting up its efforts to cut off a key source of funding for the Kremlin.

The proposal, which must be approved by all member states, reflects extended negotiations on how far the European Union should go, and what sacrifices it should be willing to make, to penalize and isolate Russia for its war in Ukraine.

The phaseout is more gradual than the immediate embargo some countries had been pushing. It would ban oil imports after six months and refined petroleum products by the end of the year.

The announcement also didn’t mention Russian gas, a matter of increased urgency since Moscow last week cut off natural gas to Poland and Bulgaria and threatened the same fate for other countries that refuse to pay in rubles.

Still, the oil ban represents a dramatic shift for the EU, which in March told the United States it couldn’t join a Russian energy embargo.

“Putin must pay a price, a high price, for his brutal aggression,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday.

“Let us be clear: It will not be easy,” she said. “Some member states are strongly dependent on Russian oil. But we simply have to work on it.”

Hungary and Slovakia raised particular objections in the course of negotiations, saying they needed more time and money to upgrade their oil infrastructure. And it was unclear Wednesday whether they had been brought fully on board.

A spokesman for the Hungarian government, Zoltan Kovacs, tweeted that the proposal does not include provisions that his country’s “energy security would be guaranteed.”

An EU official and an EU diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the proposal granted extensions for Hungary and Slovakia.

Von der Leyen did not mention any extensions on Wednesday. Eric Mamer, a commission spokesman, said at a news conference that the proposal took the concerns of heavily dependent countries “into account,” but that the European Council would “decide the way forward.”

The plan was discussed by ambassadors on Wednesday. European diplomats will continue to hash out the details on Thursday and Friday. If all countries agree, it could be adopted as early as the end of the week, according to diplomats and officials.

The oil plan is the centerpiece of the EU’s sixth round of sanctions, a package that would also remove Russia’s biggest bank, Sberbank, and two others from the SWIFT system for international transactions. Additionally, von der Leyen said, the EU would ban three Russian state-owned broadcasters from the bloc’s airwaves.

The package takes aim at high-ranking military officers and “other individuals who committed war crimes in Bucha,” said von der Leyen, referring to the Ukrainian town where evidence of Russian atrocities has led to accusations of war crimes. It also targets those “who are responsible for the inhuman siege of the city of Mariupol,” she said.

“This sends another important signal to all perpetrators of the Kremlin’s war: We know who you are, and you will be held accountable,” she said.

Bucha massacre tests Europe’s red lines on Russian energy

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU has worked closely with the United States and other allies to sanction Moscow, but it has struggled to unwind its reliance of Russian fossil fuels — a vulnerability US officials and others warned about for years.

In 2020, the bloc imported about 35 percent of its oil from Russia, along with 40 percent of its natural gas and nearly 20 percent of its coal, according to the EU statistics office.

In March, when President Biden announced a US ban on Russian oil and gas, the EU said it could commit only to reducing Russian gas imports by two-thirds per year’s end.

Nearly a month later, as graphic footage of atrocities in Bucha started circulating, the EU moved ahead with a coal ban.

EU officials hinted that action on oil would be next — but talks stalled amid strong opposition from Germany, Austria and other countries.

Thanks to price increases, Russia has continued to rake in about the same amount of money from fossil fuel sales as it did before the invasion, according to estimates by the Wednesday Group, a team of experts tracking Russian energy sales. That adds up to about $1 billion a day, and possibly $1.5 billion a day, in revenue.

The oil deal finally gained momentum after Germany — one of Russia’s biggest customers — said it had found alternative suppliers and would be comfortable with a gradual phaseout.

Here’s where Russian oil flows

Reaching a draft plan with a good chance of approval involved extensive debate on exceptions for Hungary and Slovakia, diplomats and officials said. Though there is some sympathy for the predicament of Budapest and Bratislava, Hungary securing concessions would raise eyebrows.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the EU has frozen Hungary’s pandemic recovery funds over concerns about democratic backsliding and rule-of-law breaches. Last week, the bloc triggered a mechanism that could lead to holding back tens of billions of dollars in subsidies.

The length of the phaseout and the extensions were greeted with disappointment from some members of the European Parliament, which had called for a full energy embargo — oil, coal, nuclear fuel and gas.

“In our eyes, more would have been possible,” said Rasmus Andresen, spokesperson for the delegation of the German Greens and a member of the economic and budgets committee.

“The exceptions now envisaged for certain countries and the long transition periods weaken the impact,” his statement said. “The EU should have presented a better picture.”

“I am happy that the EU is finally moving on an oil embargo, but this is far short of what this Parliament wants,” Luis Garicano, a member of the European Parliament and vice president of the body’s Renew Europe group, said in a release .

“We are now in the worst of all worlds,” he said. “Consumers are suffering from the high prices but Russian earnings still grow as the higher prices more than compensate for the lower volume.”

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