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EU avoids imposing sanctions on Russian oil, despite war crimes in Ukraine

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The European Union will not ban Russian oil imports for now and will focus on the far easier task of cutting out less valuable coal instead, despite evidence of apparent war crimes committed by President Vladimir Putin’s forces in Ukraine. 

Under a sanctions package put to member countries by the European Commission on Tuesday, Russian coal deliveries worth €4 billion a year will be removed from the bloc’s energy imports. There will be bans on Russian vessels and trucks entering the EU and tougher sanctions on four key Russian banks, which will be totally cut off from the markets.

But — amid resistance from countries led by Germany — the bloc is stopping short of an embargo on Russian oil, even though such action would deal a far bigger blow to the Kremlin’s war effort than targeting coal. Indeed, coal is only a tiny fraction of the EU’s imports of “mineral fuels” from Russia, which hit €98.9 billion in 2021. Ukraine and several Eastern European countries have been pushing for an energy embargo, arguing that oil and gas revenues are the main revenue streams funding Putin’s war.

An oil ban is particularly difficult for Germany, however. One official in Berlin stressed that banning gas was impossible for Germany and that it might also take months for Europe’s leading economy to be in a position to end its use of Russian oil. In contrast, the German government had already made clear it would phase out Russian coal by the summer anyway. In a major loophole in Tuesday’s sanctions, ships in the energy sector are exempted.

Pressure has been building on Berlin to agree to ditch Russian oil since reports emerged over the weekend of atrocities against civilians apparently committed by Russian troops before they retreated from the Kyiv area. 

Scenes of bodies littering the streets in Bucha outside the Ukrainian capital, and accounts of murder and rape, provoked a storm of outrage from world leaders and intensified demands within the EU to hit Putin’s oil profits. 

On Tuesday, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen outlined the latest package of sanctions, which will be put to EU ambassadors for approval on Wednesday. While the sanctions go further than previously planned, there is likely to be increasing pressure to do more in the days ahead, especially on ending imports of Russian oil and gas. 

“We all saw the gruesome pictures from Bucha and other areas from which Russian troops have recently left,” von der Leyen said. “These atrocities cannot and will not be left unanswered.”

Von der Leyen said the EU’s proposed fifth package of sanctions will “cut deeper” into the Russian economy but are not the end of the bloc’s ambitions. More work is ongoing on stronger sanctions, she said, including on Russian oil.  

“Russia is waging a cruel and ruthless war, not only against Ukraine’s brave troops, but also against its civilian population. It is important to sustain utmost pressure on Putin and the Russian government at this critical point.” 

It is not yet clear how the ban on coal will work. Speaking earlier, officials suggested the action on coal would be gradual. 

Von der Leyen said Russian shipping will be banned from accessing EU ports, under the sanctions, although there will be exemptions for “certain essentials” including energy, food, agricultural products and humanitarian aid. Russian and Belarusian road transport operators will also be banned from entering the EU, which will “drastically limit” the options for Russian industry to obtain vital goods, she said. 

The sanctions include further export bans in areas such as advanced semiconductors, machinery and transport equipment. The package also bans the participation of Russian companies in EU public procurement contracts and will include further listings of individuals.

Hans von der Burchard and Stuart Lau contributed reporting.

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