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

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.”

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.

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