EU unveils plan to ban all Russian oil imports as part of new sanctions package

4 May 2022, 08:08 | Updated: 4 May 2022, 08:54

Ursula Von der Leyen has announced plans for EU countries to ban all Russian oil imports
Ursula Von der Leyen has announced plans for EU countries to ban all Russian oil imports. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

The European Union's leader has called on the 27-nation bloc to ban oil imports from Russia in a sixth package of sanctions targeting Moscow for its war in Ukraine.

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European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen also proposed that Sberbank, Russia's largest bank, and two other major banks be disconnected from the Swift international banking payment system.

Ms von der Leyen, addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, called on the EU's member nations to phase out imports of crude oil within six months and refined products by the end of the year.

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"We will make sure that we phase out Russian oil in an orderly fashion, in a way that allows us and our partners to secure alternative supply routes and minimises the impact on global markets," said Ms von der Leyen.

The proposals need to be unanimously approved to take effect and are likely to be the subject of fierce debate.

Ms von der Leyen conceded that getting all 27 member countries - some of them landlocked and highly dependent on Russia for energy supplies - to agree on oil sanctions "will not be easy".

If approved, the ban on oil imports will be the second package of EU sanctions targeting Russia's lucrative energy industry over its war in Ukraine that President Vladimir Putin started on February 24.

In addition to sanctions on various entities and individuals - including Mr Putin himself and members of his family - the bloc previously approved an embargo on coal imports.

The EU has started discussions on a possible natural gas embargo, but consensus among member countries on targeting the fuel used to generate electricity and heat homes is more difficult to secure.

Hungary and Slovakia have already said they would not take part in any oil sanctions, but Ms von der Leyen did not elaborate on whether they would receive an exemption from the sanctions, although this appears likely.

Ms von der Leyen also said that the EU should target high-ranking military officers and others "who committed war crimes in Bucha", a suburb of the capital Kyiv. Ukrainian officials have alleged that retreating Russian troops carried out mass killings of civilians in Bucha.

"This sends another important signal to all perpetrators of the Kremlin's war: We know who you are. We will hold you accountable. You're not getting away with this," Ms von der Leyen said.

Banks are also in the EU executive arm's sights, and notably Sberbank. Ms von der Leyen said the aim is that "we de-Swift Sberbank". Swift is the major global system for financial transfers.

Ms von der Leyen said Sberbank holds around 37% of the Russian banking sector.

"And we will also de-Swift two other major banks in Russia. By that, we hit banks that are systemically critical to the Russian financial system and Putin's ability to wage destruction," she said.

Ms Von der Leyen added that those alleged to be spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine would be targeted. She said: "We are banning three big Russian state-owned broadcasters from our airwaves. They will not be allowed to distribute their content anymore in the EU, in whatever shape or form be it on cable, via satellite, on the internet or via smartphone apps."

She did not name the broadcasters directly, but branded the television channels "as mouthpieces that amplify Putin's lies and propaganda aggressively", adding: "We should not give them a stage anymore to spread these lies."

It comes as Ukrainian officials and the United Nations say they hope to arrange more evacuations from a bombed-out steel mill in Mariupol.

Over the weekend, an evacuation effort led to 101 people - including women, the elderly, and 17 children, the youngest six months old - emerging from the bunkers under the Azovstal steelworks to "see the daylight after two months", Osnat Lubrani, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine, said.

Ukrainian commanders said Russian forces backed by tanks then began storming the sprawling plant, which includes a maze of tunnels and bunkers spread out over four square miles (11 square kilometres).

It was unclear how many Ukrainian fighters were still inside, but the Russians put the number at about 2,000 in recent weeks, and 500 were reported to be wounded.

A few hundred civilians also remained there, Ukrainian deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

"We'll do everything that's possible to repel the assault, but we're calling for urgent measures to evacuate the civilians that remain inside the plant and to bring them out safely," Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of Ukraine's Azov Regiment, said on the messaging app Telegram.

He added that throughout the night, the plant was hit with naval artillery fire and airstrikes. Two civilian women were killed and 10 civilians wounded, he said.

Ms Lubrani expressed hope for further evacuations but said none had been worked out.

In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that by storming the steel mill, Russian forces violated agreements for safe evacuations. He said the prior evacuations are "not a victory yet, but it's already a result. I believe there's still a chance to save other people."

In other battlefield developments, Russian troops shelled a chemical plant in the eastern city of Avdiivka, killing at least 10 people, Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said.

"The Russians knew exactly where to aim - the workers just finished their shift and were waiting for a bus at a bus stop to take them home," Mr Kyrylenko wrote in a Telegram post. "Another cynical crime by Russians on our land."

Explosions were also heard in Lviv, in western Ukraine, near the Polish border. The strikes damaged three power substations, knocking out electricity in parts of the city and disrupting the water supply, and wounded two people, the mayor said. Lviv has been a gateway for Nato-supplied weapons and a haven for those fleeing the fighting in the east.

Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russian aircraft and artillery hit hundreds of targets in the past day, including troop strongholds, command posts, artillery positions, fuel and ammunition depots and radar equipment.

Ukrainian authorities said the Russians also attacked at least a half-dozen railroad stations around the country.