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Europe Reluctantly Readies Russian Oil Embargo

BRUSSELS — European officials are drafting plans for an embargo on Russian oil products, the most contested measure yet to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and a move long resisted because of its big costs for Germany and its potential to disrupt politics around the region and increase energy prices.

Having earlier this month banned Russian coal for the first time — with a four-month transition period to wind down ongoing orders — the European Union is now likely to adopt a similarly phased ban of Russian oil, E.U. officials and diplomats said. The approach is designed to give Germany, in particular, time to arrange alternative suppliers.

The earliest the proposed embargo will be put up for negotiation will be after the final round of the French elections, on April 24, to ensure that the impact on prices at the pump doesn’t fuel the populist candidate Marine Le Pen and hurt president Emmanuel Macron’s chances of re-election, officials said.

The timeline is as important as the details of the ban, and is indicative of the brinkmanship required to convince all 27 E.U. countries to agree to take a previously unthinkable step, as Russia prepares a renewed offensive in eastern Ukraine.

But officials and diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the press, said that there was a growing sense that the measure would be taken even in the absence of a so-called trigger — another major news event like the atrocities in Bucha. But an event of that type could move the decision forward.

“The commission and E.U. members have smartly shied away from defining red lines that would trigger a sanctions response since Russia attacked Ukraine,” said Emre Peker, a director at the Eurasia Group consultancy.

“I expect the E.U. will shy away from defining triggers,” he added, “as continued escalation by Russia in eastern Ukraine and revelations from Bucha and elsewhere continue to drive momentum behind a hardening European stance. Any other major catastrophes that unfold will just add more impetus to the E.U. response.”

The European Union, which has taken five rounds of increasingly severe financial sanctions against Russia since the invasion began Feb. 24, is under tremendous pressure by allies to stop lining the Kremlin’s coffers through oil purchases. So far they have kept gas imports from Russia off the table, because they remain too critical to important European economies, Germany’s in particular.

But a handful of its members are also ill-prepared to deal with the economic consequences from closing the tap on Russian oil imports. Russia is the European Union’s largest oil supplier, providing the bloc with a quarter of its oil and petroleum product imports in 2020.

Germany, the bloc’s de facto leader, highly dependent on Russian oil and gas, has been a key country resisting a quick, universal and simultaneous E.U.-wide oil embargo, and much of the work around the details of the measure is focused on ensuring that Berlin comes on board.

Germany gets 34 percent of its oil from Russia. A key challenge will be not only to find alternative suppliers to make up for that, but also to line up sufficient land transport for oil heading to its two refineries that are fed by pipelines from Russia, in particular a refinery in the eastern city of Schwedt, by the Polish border.

This week, the German ambassador to the United States elaborated on her country’s thinking on energy sanctions in a long thread on Twitter.

“Going cold turkey on fossil fuels from Russia would cause a massive, instant disruption. You cannot turn modern industrial plants on and off like a light switch. The knock-on effects would be felt beyond Germany, the EU’s economic engine and 4th largest economy in the world,” the ambassador, Emily Haber, said.

Hungary, another E.U. country that’s highly dependent on Russian oil, has demanded any future sanctions be decided by E.U. leaders rather than senior diplomats or ministers, raising the prospect of an emergency summit meeting to debate the topic.

For now, the drafting of the new measures is being done by a small number of experts at the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, led by President Ursula von der Leyen’s chief of staff, Björn Seibert.

But in addition to the French election, the timetable is also slowed by the Catholic Easter on April 16 and the Orthodox Easter on April 24, observed as a holiday in Europe, meaning that the measures would be put up for debate in late April or early May at the earliest.

A European Union leaders’ summit on Ukraine is already scheduled for the end of May, but officials said it was possible events on the ground in Ukraine, in particular after the launch of the Russian offensive in the east, would make an earlier meeting to address an oil embargo necessary.

But with all these caveats applying, what once seemed an impossible step for Europe was now likely, officials said.

Following the working method of drafting E.U. sanctions, the Commission is not putting details of its proposals for an oil ban on paper — for fear it will leak, or force public expressions of disagreement among E.U. nations and so break its attempt to project a united front.

Instead, small groups of diplomats will meet with Commission officials to debate the measures in coming days, throughout the Easter break, officials said.

Officials and diplomats say there is growing consensus that, in order to maintain unity among the 27 states, a phased approach is necessary.

The most likely approach is a schedule that differentiates between types of oil products and methods of delivery, with consensus building around the feasibility of a faster embargo on oil transported by tankers, as opposed to oil coming to Europe via pipelines. That concession is intended to bring Germany on board.

A minimum one-month transition period will be part of the oil ban currently discussed, diplomats and officials said.

“While the direction of travel — toward oil sanctions and overall energy decoupling from Russia — is clear and broadly uncontested, many E.U. capitals led by Berlin want to roll out forthcoming measures with as little disruption as possible,” Mr. Peker said.

“That will require phase-outs and exemptions, to allow countries with a heavy reliance on Russian supplies to adjust. It will also be key to achieving consensus among 27 member states,” he added.

Germany’s economy minister, Robert Habeck, has publicly stated that the country is weaning itself off Russian oil with a year-end horizon, timeline that would likely be expedited.

“Companies are letting their contracts with Russian suppliers run out, not renewing them and switching to other suppliers at an insane pace,” Mr. Habeck said in Berlin in late March.

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