European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday said the EU would impose a gradual Russian oil ban on retaliation for the war in Ukraine.
The proposals need to be unanimously approved to take effect and are likely to be the subject of fierce debate.
Von der Leyen, addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, conceded that getting all 27 member countries – some of them landlocked and highly dependent on Russia for energy supplies – to agree on oil sanctions ‘will not be easy.’
The bloc is aiming to phase out crude oil from Russia within six months, and refined products by the end of the year.
‘We will make sure that we phase out Russian oil in an orderly fashion,’ von der Leyen said in speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg as she presented a sixth package of sanctions against Moscow to deny funding to the war effort against Ukraine.
The European Union’s top official, Ursula von der Leyen, on Wednesday called on the 27-nation bloc to ban oil imports from Russia in a sixth package of sanctions targeting Moscow
Von der Leyen also said that the EU would ask that the bloc’s 27 member states to deny Sberbank, Russia’s biggest bank, access to SWIFT, the global banking communications system.
Sberbank holds around 37% of the Russian banking sector, said Von der Leyen.
‘And we will also de-SWIFT two other major banks in Russia. By that, we hit banks that are systemically critical to the Russian financial system and Putin’s ability to wage destruction, ‘she said.
She said the European Union had to maximize the pressure on Russia but ensure that the economies of its member states remain strong in order to be effective in their support for Ukraine.
If approved, the ban on oil imports will be the second package of EU sanctions targeting Russia’s lucrative energy industry over its war in Ukraine that President Vladimir Putin started on February 24.
The bloc is aiming to phase out crude oil from Russia within six months, and refined products by the end of the year
In addition to sanctions on various entities and individuals – including Putin himself and members of his family – the bloc previously approved an embargo on coal imports.
The EU has started discussions on a possible natural gas embargo, but consensus among member countries on targeting the fuel used to generate electricity and heat homes is more difficult to secure.
Von der Leyen also said that the EU should target high-ranking military officers and others ‘who committed war crimes in Bucha,’ a suburb of the capital Kyiv.
Ukrainian officials have alleged that retreating Russian troops carried out mass killings of civilians in Bucha.
‘This sends another important signal to all perpetrators of the Kremlin’s war: We know who you are. We will hold you accountable. You’re not getting away with this, ‘von der Leyen told the lawmakers.
Von der Leyen added that those alleged to be spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine would be targeted.
‘We are banning three big Russian state-owned broadcasters from our airwaves. They will not be allowed to distribute their content anymore in the EU, in any shape or form be it on cable, via satellite, on the internet or via smartphone apps. ‘
She did not name the broadcasters directly, but branded the television channels’ as mouthpieces that amplify Putin’s lies and propaganda aggressively. We should not give them a stage anymore to spread these lies. ‘
The EU’s top official said the bloc must maximize pressure on Russia but ensure the economies of its member states remain strong in order to be effective in their support for Ukraine
Although von der Leyen did not name names, Hungary and Slovakia are both highly dependent on imports of Russian oil and gas.
Hungary and Slovakia have already said they wouldn’t take part in any oil sanctions, but von der Leyen didn’t elaborate on whether they would receive an exemption from the sanctions, although this appears likely.
If Slovakia and Hungary are given a loophole and Germany pushes ahead, the bloc may be able to present a united economic front on the banning of Russian exports.
To keep the 27-nation bloc united, the Commission might offer Slovakia and Hungary ‘an exemption or a long transition period’, one of the officials said.
Oil exports are a major source of Moscow’s revenue, giving EU countries the ability to pile up economic pressure on Russia by denying it sales from the continent.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban attends the opening session of Hungary’s new parliament in Budapest. The European Commission may spare Hungary and Slovakia from an embargo on buying Russian oil
Russian pipelines supplying oil and gas to Europe (pictured) would be turned off under the new sanctions package, with the possible exception of imports heading to Hungary and Slovakia
Germany’s Economy Minister Robert Habeck said on Monday it would be able to weather an EU embargo on Russian oil imports by the end of the year, in a signal Germany is throwing its weight behind the ban.
‘We have managed to reach a situation where Germany is able to bear an oil embargo,’ Habeck, of the ecologist Greens, told a news conference. ‘This means it won’t be without consequences.’
Finance Minister Christian Lindner went even further, telling a German broadcaster that the German economy would even be able to stomach an immediate ban.
‘With coal and oil, it is possible to forgo Russian imports now,’ Lindner of the Free Democrats (FDP) told WELT. ‘It can’t be ruled out that fuel prices could rise.’
Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government is under pressure to reduce Germany’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels and he has been accused of lacking leadership after his initial resistance to supplying Ukraine with heavy weapons.
Germany last month cut the share of Russian oil to 25% of total imports from 35% before the invasion.
Germany’s Economy Minister Robert Habeck said on Monday it would be able to weather an EU embargo on Russian oil imports by the end of the year, in a signal the country is throwing its weight behind the ban
Habeck said the main challenge for Germany was to find alternative oil deliveries to a refinery in Schwedt operated by Russian state company Rosneft which supplies east German regions as well as the Berlin metropolitan area.
Those areas could face supply shortages in the event of an EU embargo if Germany cannot secure alternative oil imports by the end of the year, Habeck said.
‘We still have no solution for the refinery in Schwedt,’ said Habeck. ‘We can guarantee that supplies will be continuous.
There will be for sure be price hikes and there will be some outages. But that doesn’t mean we will slide into an oil crisis. ‘
An advisor to Scholz told the Financial Times in remarks published on Sunday that Germany backed the planned EU embargo on Russia oil but wanted a few more months to secure alternatives.
Joerg Kukies told the newspaper that the goal was to ensure Schwedt is supplied with non-Russian oil brought by tankers to Rostock on the Baltic Sea.
Moscow’s commanders have not mentioned storming the complex, and instead say they are destroying new defenses set up during a ceasefire at the weekend
Meanwhile in Ukraine, Russia is attempting to storm the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol after heavy bombing overnight which killed two civilians, the Ukrainian defenders have said.
Captain Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov battalion which is holed up inside the plant, said Russia spent all night bombing and is now trying to storm the complex using armored vehicles, tanks, boats and ‘a large number of infantry’.
Palamar said two women were killed in the bombardment with another ten injured, and called for an immediate ceasefire so hundreds of civilians still stuck inside the plant can be evacuated.
Moscow acknowledged bombing Azovstal but said its troops were taking out new defensive positions set up during a ceasefire at the weekend.
Commanders made no mention of storming the plant, after Putin vowed last month that operation had been called off to preserve the lives of his troops.
: A woman from Mariupol cries after arriving at an evacuation point in Zaporizhzhia
The Azovstal steel plant is the last holdout of Ukrainian resistance in a city that is otherwise controlled by Moscow’s forces and key to their campaign in Ukraine’s east.
The UN confirmed today that it had helped to evacuate 101 people – mostly women and children – from the plant last week during a five-day operation.
It said ‘most’ of those people arrived in the city of Zaporizhzhia, 125 miles from Mariupol through Russian-held territory, today – though some had decided to remain in occupied areas.
The BBC reported that 156 people arrived in Zaporizhzhia as part of a convoy, which had grown in size as people from outside the steel works joined en route.
Images and video of those arrivals showed some people weeping as others – including a disabled man – were helped off buses to be given medical care.
Mariupol has come to symbolize the human misery inflicted by the war.