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Time to turn the screw on Russia

Svitlana Zalishchuk is a former member of the Ukrainian Parliament (2014 to 201)9 and former foreign policy adviser to the prime minister of Ukraine. She’s currently an adviser to the CEO of Naftogaz. 

The sanctions Western countries have imposed on Russia in response to its bloody war against Ukraine go far beyond what the Kremlin expected. 

Freezing half of the Russian Central Bank’s foreign currency reserves, uncoupling Russian banks from the global financial system and the withdrawal of leading Western companies from Russia are all having a devastating impact on the Russian economy. 

However, these measures have not yet persuaded President Vladimir Putin to withdraw his forces from Ukraine. 

And now is the time for Western leaders to finally cast aside their fears of “pushing Putin into a corner,” and to further increase economic pressure by restricting Russian oil imports as fast as possible. 

As British analyst James Sherr noted as early as 2015, if Putin can’t control Ukraine, he will wreck it. And after seeing that we can defend ourselves and will not bow to Moscow, the Russian army has resorted to flattening Ukrainian cities with artillery strikes. 

Ukrainian determination to defend our sovereignty, combined with the West’s support, has also forced Russia to widen its war. Moscow is now weaponizing gas supplies to Europe to persuade European leaders not to stand in its way, while also limiting exports of Ukrainian grain to stoke a global food crisis in hopes of creating refugee flows from Africa to Europe.  

Full-scale hybrid war is taking place before our eyes, yet we sometimes get the impression that Western countries are still struggling to accept the fact that Russia is attacking them too. Some are even openly reluctant to state that Russia must be defeated. It’s as if they’re in denial about Moscow’s goal to break Western cohesion and legitimize a divided Europe, with a Russian sphere of influence extending all the way to Germany’s borders. 

But in order to win this war, Ukraine needs Western countries to squeeze Russia’s revenues from the sale of fossil fuels — particularly oil. 

In the case of gas, Russia is currently happily sanctioning itself by increasingly restricting gas flows to its biggest European customers, destroying a business built up over decades and that gave it significant influence in Europe. For the first time in three decades, Gazprom has cancelled dividends, and the company has limited capacity to switch exports quickly to the Asian markets.  

However, rather than gas exports, its oil exports are what make up the bulk of Russia’s foreign currency earnings, and this is where European sanctions must focus. According to a recent analysis by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, during the first 100 days of the war, Russia earned €93 billion from hydrocarbon exports, while it spent an estimated €84 billion on its military campaign. 63 percent of those export revenues came from oil and oil products, in contrast to gas (32 percent) and coal (5 percent). 

The good news for Ukraine here is that several European countries have already announced steps to reduce their dependence on Russian fossil fuels, which will dramatically weaken Russia’s ability to wage war in the medium to long term. 

The bad news, however, is that Western leaders fear some of these measures will lead to higher oil prices in the short term, and are stepping back from their commitment to implement them.  

Take maritime insurance, for example. In June, the EU announced a ban on the provision of insurance for seaborne transportation of Russian oil and oil products to third countries. However, Russian exports of crude by sea are currently higher than they were before the start of the war, and reportedly, there has been no coordinated action with the United Kingdom to address the insurance ban either, even though London is the center of the global maritime insurance industry.  

The EU has also quietly lifted some of the restrictions preventing European companies from paying Russian exporters to transport oil to third countries; it has increased the volume of diesel it imports from Russia — they rose by 20 percent in July — and there are currently no provisions in place to address the problem of Russian crude being blended with oil from Kazakhstan, which reaches global markets. 

The only way to stop Russia’s war against Ukraine and the West is to deprive Russia of the resources to fight it. And if they loosen the noose on the Russian economy now, Western countries risk snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. 

The sacrifices on the Ukrainian side have been huge in this war. But we need our Western partners to pay the price to achieve victory together. And higher energy bills are a small sacrifice compared to the blood being spilt.

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