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Proposed E.U. ban on oil marks a turning point in West's measures against Russia

The war is sweeping away old certainties. The proposed oil ban is the latest previously unthinkable way in which Russia’s relationship with the West has changed. 
Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are key players in policies around Europe's dependence on Russia oil. 
Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are key players in policies around Europe's dependence on Russia oil. Max Butterworth / NBC News

When Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine on Feb. 24, starting the most critical war in Europe since 1945, it threw the whole continent into turmoil and uncertainty. Yet one thing remained the same: Europe carried on buying Russian energy.

Despite most European countries’ opposition to the invasion, Russia has been earning about $1 billion a day from Western fossil fuel exports, Ukrainian officials say. It continues to provide about a quarter of Europe’s crude oil and two-fifths of the natural gas it burns — a relationship that dates back to the Cold War.

All that could be about to change.

The European Union looks set to secure a ban on Russian oil imports to its 27 member states, a historic shift designed to hit Russia’s national finances and weaken its war machine as the invasion grinds on into its 11th week.

The war is sweeping away old certainties. The proposed oil ban is the latest previously unthinkable way in which Russia’s relationship with the West has changed. 

The E.U. also plans to cut off Sberbank, Russia’s largest lender, from the SWIFT international payment system. The E.U. and the United Kingdom haved moved to stop Russian oligarchs buying up multimillion-dollar houses and yachts. Russian and Belarussian athletes find themselves banned from major sports tournaments.

The backlash is stronger than even Russia’s biggest critics might have expected. And all this for a country that 20 years ago was declared by Western economists to be among the world’s most promising emerging economies and a hot spot for investment, alongside the other so-called BRICS nations of Brazil, India, China and South Africa.

“For the E.U. to be proposing this step is something that, if you and I had had this discussion two months ago, we would have probably concluded it would be inconceivable,” said John Lough, an expert on energy security at the Chatham House think tank in London.

“The impossible has become the new normal and this is not the end of it. We’re likely to see more countries turning away more rapidly from Russian gas. Russia’s long-term future as a fossil fuel supplier to Europe is in jeopardy.”

An employee works on a gas installation at the Sofia Iztok thermal power plant on May 5, 2022, a week after the halt of Russian gas supply to Bulgaria.Nikolay Doychinov / AFP via Getty Images

Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive body, announced plans Wednesday for a “complete import ban on all Russian oil, seaborne and pipeline, crude and refined.” Most countries will phase out Russian crude oil within six months and refined oil by the end of the year, the plans say.

“There is now an implicit acceptance in Europe that purchasing Russian energy products has a political implication and that the independence of the E.U. depends on not being reliant on Russian exports,” said Jonathan Eyal, an associate director at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London.

Not everyone is keen on the plan. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban told state-run radio Friday that he would not support the sanctions package in its current form, describing it as an economic “atomic bomb.” Landlocked Slovakia also wants to be exempted due to its huge reliance on Russian oil and has asked for a longer transition period. Each of the 27 E.U. members must back the plan for it to pass.

Whether or not those countries will accept any concessions or exemptions — none have been confirmed — Europe is starting to wean itself off Russian energy.

And some are calling for an even faster timeline. Siegfried Mureșan, a Romanian member of the European Parliament and a vice-chair of the center-right European People’s Party grouping, said the time for action is now.

“We need to make sure that the Russian Federation does not have enough financial resources to sustain this conflict and to keep on killing civilians — this needs to end as soon as possible,” he told NBC News.

“Russia is a threat to the whole of Europe and will continue to remain a threat for the foreseeable future, as long as it’s being led by an autocratic regime. This is why we absolutely need to reduce all dependencies on Russia.”

Mureșan noted that the E.U. and its allies had stood through various Russian transgressions — such as the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 — without looking to change its energy relationship.

“There were signs of radicalization of the Russian Federation. We can’t change our actions from the past but we need to make sure we are united now as the E.U.,” he said.

DPR LPR Russia Ukraine Military Operation
The turret of a destroyed tank is seen on a street in the city of Mariupol on May 4, 2022. Valery Melnikov / Sputnik via AP

The E.U.’s move was made possible by the shifting stance of its biggest and most influential economy. Just four weeks ago, Germany was still openly opposing moves to ban Russian energy imports, while already attracting criticism from Ukraine and several others for refusing to supply arms to the Ukrainian resistance.

Back in January, even as 100,000 Russian troops amassed on Ukraine’s border, Germany still expected the colossal Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to go ahead. Berlin cautioned that it would only back economic sanctions against Russia if Moscow used its place in the energy market “as a weapon.”

Before the war, almost three-quarters of Germany’s diesel imports came from Russia, data from the consultancy FGE Energy shows.

Now, Nord Stream 2 is indefinitely suspended, Germany is backing a Russian oil import ban, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz has overruled the pacifist tendencies in his coalition government by spending an extra $113 billion on defense. 

“That is a reversal of a policy that Germany held for decades, that the dependence on Russia creates peace in Europe because it makes Russia dependent on Western revenues,” Eyal said. “All the fundamentals of Germany’s European security policy have melted down in the last few months.”

This policy of Wandel durch Handel — change through trade — now looks to be dead. That Germany and the rest of Europe believed it could survive Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive foreign policy long before the Ukraine invasion, is for many observers a gross miscalculation.

During the Cold War, the then-Soviet Union was happy to keep the status quo in Europe rather than expand its boundaries, Lough said. Under Putin, this was clearly not the case.

“So that argument no longer worked — but you could still see it, particularly in Germany: that it was in Russia’s self-interest to sustain a relationship with Europe and to find a solution to their difficulty over Ukraine.”

The oil ban may raise some difficult new questions, such as Europe’s continued reliance on Russian natural gas. Whereas oil is a globally traded commodity that can be bought from a range of suppliers, gas arrives through specially made pipelines.

Russia may now retaliate: Three weeks ago, it cut off gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland, ostensibly because those countries refused to pay in rubles, but analysts saw it as a clear warning of how Moscow can use energy to exert pressure.

And should the plan go ahead, it is up to European and national politicians to sell it to populations while also preparing them for likely energy price rises in the future. For some, it’s a price they’re willing to pay.

“Defending democracy costs; not defending democracy costs even more,” Mureșan said.