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Brussels mulls Russian oil embargo in new sanctions round

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By Alice Tidey
Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra (L) and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis (R) at a meeting in Brussels, Mar. 21, 2022.
Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra (L) and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis (R) at a meeting in Brussels, Mar. 21, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Olivier Matthys

The European Union is mulling imposing an embargo on Russian oil and coal — but not gas — as part of its next round of sanctions but the impact on Moscow may be limited.

EU foreign ministers are gathering in Brussels on Monday to discuss new sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine with many calling for a ban on Russian oil and coal imports.

"It is unavoidable to start talking about the energy sector and we definitely can start talking about oil," Lithuania Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told reporters heading into the meeting.

"Europe cannot look, give an impression of fatigue when the war in Ukraine hasn't ended. We cannot get tired imposing sanctions, we cannot get tired offering assistance to Ukraine," he added.

His Irish counterpart, Simon Coveney, said Dublin is "very open" to sanctions on Russian oil and coal.

"We think that is appropriate," he said, given "the extent of the destruction in Ukraine."

The EU has so far imposed four rounds of sanctions against Russia since it launched its military attack against Ukraine on 24 February. These have targeted banks, hundreds of individuals including Russian President Vladimir Putin, his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and oligarchs, and the steel sector. The bloc has also banned exports to Russia of any good that can be used by its military as well as luxury products.

The aim of these sanctions, the bloc and its allies have said, is to cripple the Russian economy and curtail its ability to raise funds for its military.

'Ineffective at reducing Russian revenues'

But energy supplies have so far been left off the table as the EU is heavily reliant on Russia for its energy supplies.

More than a third of the EU's energy is generated by petroleum products with another fifth generated by natural gas. Solid fossil fuels, such as coal, account for 12.7% of the EU's energy mix.

Moscow provides more than 40% of the EU's imports of natural gas, 26.9% of imports of crude oil and 46.7% of imports of solid fuel such as coal.

Brussels has instead unveiled a plan to reduce its gas imports from Russia by two-thirds by the end of 2022 and to be completely independent from Russian fossil fuels before 2030.

According to a tracker by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), an independent research organisation, the bloc has paid more than €16.8 billion for Russian fossil fuels since the beginning of the invasion.

"The result of the West's mixed approach towards Russian energy imports on Russian finances was amiss," Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at Bruegel, told Euronews.

"Lower volumes of Russian oil, gas and coal brought to the market as well as the expectation of potentially tighter future sanctions increased global and particularly European prices for the still delivered Russian fuels to the point of overcompensating Russia for the loss of volume. A partial wind-down of volumes from Russia will in the short-term remain ineffective at reducing Russian revenues," he added.

Only an immediate global embargo "would drastically cut Putin’s revenues", Tagliapietra stressed, flagging however that it "is unlikely to happen because not all countries, including importantly China, will not go along."

He urged the EU to implement "a smarter approach". "Considering that Russian oil and gas supplies cannot be easily sold elsewhere, Europe can tax Putin’s energy imports while keeping Russian oil and gas flowing to Europe.

'Europe will have a hard time'

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned on Monday that "such an embargo will affect, and will affect very seriously, the world oil market in general."

" (It) will seriously affect the energy balance on the European continent for the worse," he told reporters according to TASS.

"The Americans would be left with their own - that's obvious - and would feel much better than the Europeans. Europeans will have a hard time. It's probably a decision that will hit everyone," he concluded.

Among the other sanctions, EU ministers will discuss on Monday is a possible ban for Russian ships to access seaports, Denmark's top diplomat said.

Discussions will also fare on how the EU can use its global economic weight "to ensure that countries, third countries, will choose the right side of history," Jeppe Kofod added.

Lithuania's Landsbergis argued that on the issue of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, there is "no grey zone" and argued that any country that provides assistance to Moscow should be on the receiving end of similar sanctions