In major blow, EU bans imports of most Russian oil

From the moment Russia invaded on Feb. 24, the West has sought to hit Moscow's lucrative energy sector.
BRUSSELS -- In the most significant effort yet to punish Russia for its war in Ukraine, the European Union agreed to ban the overwhelming majority of Russian oil imports after tense negotiations that exposed the cracks in the bloc's united front.

From the moment Russia invaded on Feb. 24, the West has sought to hit Moscow's lucrative energy sector to cut off funding for its war. But any such move is a double-edged sword, especially in Europe, which relies on the country for 25% of its oil and 40% of its natural gas. European countries that are even more heavily dependent on Russia have been especially reluctant to act.

In a move unthinkable just months ago, EU leaders agreed late Monday to cut around 90% of all Russian oil imports over the next six months.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo called the embargo a "big step forward" and Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin hailed it as "a watershed moment." But both leaders cautioned that Europe would need time to adjust to the impact - and any further bans on Russian energy would come slowly.

In response to the EU's decision, Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia's permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, said on Twitter: "Russia will find other importers."

Russia has also not shied away from withholding its energy supplies, despite the economic damage it could suffer as a result. Russian energy giant Gazprom announced it would cut natural gas supplies to Dutch trader GasTerra on Tuesday and it is considering cutting off Denmark. It's already turned the taps off to Bulgaria, Poland and Finland.

GasTerra said the move was announced after it refused Gazprom's "one-sided payment requirements." That's a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin's demand that European nations pay for gas in rubles - an arrangement many have refused. GasTerra said homes would not be hit as it had bought gas elsewhere in anticipation of a shutoff.

Talks at EU headquarters in Brussels were set Tuesday to focus on ways to end the trading bloc's dependence on Russian energy, by diversifying supplies and speeding up the transition to renewable sources and away, as much as possible given recent price hikes, from fossil fuels.

Leaders are also expected to discuss how to help Ukraine export millions of tons of grain trapped inside the country as a global food crisis grows.

EU leaders plan to call on Russia to halt its attacks on transport infrastructure in Ukraine and lift its blockade of Black Sea ports so that food can be shipped. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said Russia has prevented the export of 22 million tons of grain, much of it meant for people across the Middle East and Africa. He accused Moscow of "deliberately creating this problem."

In other developments:

- Russian forces have seized around half of a key city in eastern Ukraine, according to the mayor. Analysts have painted the battle for Sievierodonetsk as part of a race against time for the Kremlin: The city is key to Russian efforts to quickly complete the capture of the eastern industrial region of the Donbas before more Western arms arrive to bolster Ukraine's defense.

- A court in Ukraine convicted two Russian soldiers on Tuesday of war crimes for the shelling of civilian buildings. It sentenced both to 11 1/2 years in prison, concluding the country's second war crime trial held since the Russian invasion.

The EU oil embargo, tied up in a new package of sanctions that will also target Russia's biggest bank and state media outlets accused of spreading propaganda, covers crude oil and petroleum products but has an exception for oil delivered by pipeline.

That exception was demanded by Hungarian Prime minister Viktor Orban, who made it clear that he could only support the new sanctions if his country's oil supply security was guaranteed. Hungary gets more than 60% of its oil from Russia, much of it through the Soviet-era Druzhba pipeline.

The EU estimated that would mean around 90% of Russian oil is banned by the end of the year. That figure includes a ban on all Russian oil delivered by sea - which accounts for two-thirds of the EU's imports - plus a decision by Germany and Poland to stop using oil from the northern branch of the Druzhba pipeline.

The sanctions package must still be finalized in coming days - and the leaders said the exemption for crude delivered by pipeline will be reviewed "as soon as possible," though they did not specify when.

The compromise laid bear the increasing difficulty of reaching consensus among EU leaders when important national interests are in play - and the ways in which Hungary has emerged as thorn in the bloc's side.

But despite the struggles, the sanctions package - the sixth targeting Russia's invasion of Ukraine - was agreed in about a month, quite quickly for 27 countries with very different national interests.

Agreeing on another round of measures is likely to prove much tougher - especially because next on the docket is whether to target natural gas, which is much harder to cut off. That's because it represents a larger percentage of Europe's energy mix.

The compromise came after Zelenskyy urged leaders again to target Russia's oil.

Only once Moscow "feels the price for what it is doing against Ukraine" will it be forced to "start seeking peace," he said in a video address.

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Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report.
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