EU approves sanctions targeting Russian oil and Sberbank

The bloc drops the leader of Russia’s Orthodox Church from a proposed blacklist after Hungary opposes the move.

The European Union has given its final approval to new sanctions on Russian oil and top bank Sberbank, after much wrangling with Hungary, as punishment for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

EU leaders, used to plentiful supplies of Russian energy, agreed on Thursday to a partial embargo on crude oil imports that will take full effect by the end of 2022. Hungary and two other landlocked Central European states secured exemptions for the pipeline imports they rely on.

The sixth round of sanctions also included banning three more Russian state media outlets and cutting off Russia’s biggest bank, Sberbank, from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) system.

The war brought ties between Russia and the West to new lows and the latest EU sanctions will cut 90 percent of Russian oil imports to the bloc of 27 nations and 450 million people.

“This will reduce Russia’s capacity to finance its war,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said of the measures.

One prominent person who will not be blacklisted despite plans to the contrary, however, is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, a close Putin ally. Hungary’s opposition blocked the necessary EU unanimity.

Hungary escalated demands in recent weeks over the oil embargo. To win Budapest over, other EU countries agreed to water it down by exempting oil delivered by the Druzhba pipeline going to Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Slovakia’s sole oil refiner, Slovnaft, a unit of Hungary’s MOL, said the sanctions would ban oil product exports after eight months to its key markets the Czech Republic, Austria and Poland, as well as making it impossible to supply the domestic market.

Apart from banning seaborne imports into Europe, the new sanctions also include an immediate ban on insuring ships carrying Russian oil elsewhere, an EU official told the news agency Reuters, while existing contracts are to be phased out over six months.

EU experts say that would complicate Russia’s efforts to find other markets for its crude.

Putin ally not included on sanctions list

An EU diplomat vented frustration with Hungary after its opposition to blacklisting Patriarch Kirill only came up after EU leaders met in Brussels on Monday and Tuesday and sealed a deal on the sanctions.

The diplomat, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said the “unnecessary stunt … might have been a Pyrrhic victory for Budapest. The country has never before been so isolated on the EU level.”

Kirill, 75, is a fervent supporter of Putin and has backed his military campaign in Ukraine.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the closest EU leader to the Kremlin, had said he opposed adding Kirill to the list as it would contravene “freedom of religion”.

A diplomat said other EU nations had refused to give in to a further demand from Orban to keep being able to sell on the Russian oil he will still receive.

The move is seen as the most powerful package of sanctions imposed to date against Moscow after five previous waves of punishment that have rocked the Russian economy.

Other prominent additions to the asset freeze and visa ban blacklist include Putin’s reported girlfriend Alina Kabaeva and military personnel suspected of war crimes in Ukraine.

The sanctions are expected to be formally adopted later this week, when they are to be published in the EU’s official journal.

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